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To freedom in just 28 minutes!

Doris Strelzyk: You want us to climb into a balloon and float away to West Germany?
Petra Wetzel: Come on, it isn't funny to make jokes about going to the West.
Doris Strelzyk: They're not joking.
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Night Crossing is a 1982 Disney movie made during their period of films aimed more at older audiences. It's the based on a true story account of the Strelzyk and Wetzel families' escape from East Germany in a homemade hot air balloon on the night of September 15, 1979.

That's right. This is a true story, and a truly remarkable one at that.

The year is 1978. East Germany has sealed its border with the West for over fifteen years, with life for its citizens being dull and bleak. Thousands continue to attempt to escape to West Germany, but the majority fail and they are either arrested or killed. In Thuringia, a teenage boy attempts to escape by driving a bulldozer through the border zone. He fails and is shot to death by the military. His death causes his family to be taken in for "questioning" and spurs their friends, the Strelzyks and Wetzels, into wanting to escape. Peter Strelzyk (John Hurt) hatches a daring plan with Günter Wetzel (Beau Bridges) to build a balloon that will carry both their families out of East Germany. For months, they work to sew the envelope in their attic and construct a suitable burner. With their large purchases of fabric being monitored by the Stasi, they must work quickly before they too are arrested.

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The 2018 German film Ballon also tells the story of the escape.


Tropes:

  • Adult Fear:
    • Petra Wetzel is the most skeptical of the plan, as she's afraid the balloon will crash and kill their children.
    • All of the adults are fearful that the Stasi will come and take them away. After they get home from their unsuccessful first attempt, Peter gets very jumpy every time he hears a car or truck passing by.
    • Peter is inspired to come up with a plan because he doesn't want to wait until his son Frank tries to get out and is killed trying.
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: We must reiterate that, yes, this actually happened. You can even see the original balloon used in the real escape at the Museum of Bavarian History.
  • Armies Are Evil: The East German Grenztruppen.
  • Artistic License – History: While the meat of the story is accurate, the film condenses some of the actual events. For instance, the families actually built three balloons: the first was the original prototype, the second was used in the Strelzyks' escape attempt, and the third was used in the final escape. In addition, Peter is portrayed as coming up with the idea for the balloon, even though they got the idea when Petra's sister visited with a magazine showing a balloon festival in Arizona. You can read Günter Wetzel's account of the escape here.
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  • As You Know: One of Peter's neighbors has to remind him that they're neighbors and friends. It should be no surprise that he later turns out to be a Stasi agent.
  • Bad Liar: Peter and Günter are not quite convincing when they say that their orders for absurdly large quantities of fabric are for a camping club with big tents.
  • Badass Longcoat: The Stasi agents and their trenchcoats.
  • Big "YES!": Peter and Günter when a Bavarian policeman tells them that they are, indeed, in the West.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Doris loses her blood pressure pills during the first escape attempt. They're later found by the Stasi on the day of their second attempt, providing a lead.
  • Crazy Enough to Work: Build a hot-air balloon in your attic with little more than a high school science book as your guide and fly away to West Germany? Everyone initially laughs it off, until they see just how serious Peter is.
    Peter: It's something we can get the materials to build and nobody will be expecting it.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Petra, just before they leave for the launch site.
    Günter: You've gained weight.
    Petra: I've got my good slacks underneath. I'm not arriving in West Germany looking like a bum.
  • Defector from Commie Land: The main characters, obviously.
  • Determinator: 3 examples: The families, however this is partly due to necessity since the police will never stop looking for them. The police who devote all their resources to finding anyone who attempts to escape. And East Germany as a whole who ironically devoted so much just to prevent anyone from leaving their "paradise."
  • Dirty Communists: One of the best examples. The coldness of the East German officials is showcased when they leave Lukas Keller to die and instead focus on repairing the damage to the border zone he caused. Party chairman Erich Hoenecker's presence is made known through his photograph being shown in numerous locations.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: After many hardships, setbacks, and tragedies, both families manage to successfully escape East Germany and make a new life for themselves in the West.
  • Foregone Conclusion: How else would the movie have been made? As it ages and the concept becomes increasingly obsolete; the outcome is less determined by younger audiences though.
  • Foreshadowing: During the family picnic, Petra grabs her son and swings him around, calling him a balloon that's floating away.
  • Four Eyes, Zero Soul: Major Koerner wears a very sinister pair of glasses.
  • Freeze-Frame Ending: The film ends on an image of the families popping open the champagne after they make it to the West.
  • The Great Wall: The Inner German Border, a mass of fences, barbed wire, and guard towers. The Berlin Wall itself is briefly shown from Koerner's office.
  • Hard-Work Montage: The construction of both balloons have one, with Günter sewing the balloon envelope, Peter working on the basket and burner, and Petra and Doris buying fabric.
  • Heroic BSoD: Peter goes through one after they get home from their first escape attempt, despondent that they came within a few hundred feet of freedom. His son Frank helps him out of it, pointing out that the balloon actually flew and now the Stasi will surely find them unless they try again.
  • Hope Spot: The first escape attempt. After the Wetzels bail out of the plan, due to Petra's fears about its workability, the Strelzyks attempt to escape by themselves. However, a cloud dampens the balloon and forces them to land. Peter scouts ahead, only to find that they're inside the border zone, with land mines and trip wires standing between them and returning home.
  • The Informant: This being East Germany, the Strelzyks and Wetzels are very wary about their neighbors as any one of them might report them to the Stasi. As it turns out, one of them actually is a Stasi agent. Once they track them down, one of their neighbors wastes no time in saying that they've been acting suspiciously.
  • It's Probably Nothing: When Doris realizes that she's lost her blood pressure pills in the border zone, Peter says they'll be difficult to trace. The Stasi find the pills the day the families make their escape attempt and come within minutes of capturing them.
  • MacGyvering: The Wetzels sew the balloon itself in their attic while Peter uses household appliances to build the burner and construct a basket. In the real escape, they cannibalized a motorcycle in order to construct the fan needed to inflate the balloon with cold air.
  • Meaningful Name: The border guard lieutenant is named Fehler, which is German for "mistake."
  • Missed Him by That Much: The day of the escape, the Stasi find heart medication belonging to Doris Strelzyk in the area where the first balloon was found. They go to the pharmacy and after looking through the entire prescription file, they get a lead once they find Doris' name, which is further expounded by their neighbor, a Stasi member, mentioning how the Strelzyks have been acting strangely for weeks. Fortunately, the families manage to leave their house for the last time and get to their launch site just before the Stasi agents arrive.
  • Mook Lieutenant: Lieutenant Fehler, who's in charge of the section of the border zone where the escape takes place.
  • No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup: Averted. Peter still has the original plans and goes through multiple prototypes to construct a burner, so when they build the second balloon they don't start entirely from scratch. Their greatest difficulty though is buying enough fabric, as the Stasi has alerted stores to report any unusual purchases.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Zigzagged. All of the members of the Strelcyk and Wetzel Families speak in their native British or American accents. But all secondary characters speak with (sometimes exaggerated) German accents. Justified in that some of the actors are German.
  • Nothing Can Stop Us Now!: During the escape, Major Koerner pursues the balloon in a helicopter. When the families turn off the burner, as there's a blockage in the gas line, he assumes they're descending because they've run out of fuel and mobilizes the border guard to find them once they land.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • While walking several miles back to their car in the border zone, the Strelzyks see a tow truck drive past them, leading them to worry that their car was found. Fortunately, they make it to the launch site and find their car and equipment still there.
    • A few during the escape, such as when they see that there's a hole at the top of the balloon and then when the border searchlights start looking for them.
    • After the first balloon, Peter tells the family to stay put while he goes to look around and see if they made it across the border. He makes his way through the woods to a clearing... and finds they are about a hundred yards short of the border. And yes, this is accurate to the true story.
  • Properly Paranoid: When buying an enormous quantity of fabric, Peter feels uneasy when the manager goes to his office to make a phone call. He immediately leaves afterwards, knowing he likely alerted the Stasi.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Deconstructed. Major Koerner, the leader of the Stasi agents hunting down the families, clearly sees himself as just a cop doing his job. But when he goes to the pharmacy to track down a prescription number (see above), the pharmacist is clearly terrified of Koerner and his lackies. The pharmacist tries to reason with Koerner, telling him how hard it will be to track the name down with what he has to work with. Koerner quietly browbeats him, giving strong hints that the pharmacist might be subjected to, shall we say, harsher forms of interrogation if he doesn't comply.
  • Race Against Time: The third act, when the Strelzyks and Wetzels start working to build a second balloon. The Stasi are steadily closing in, based on the launch site and tracking any unusual purchases of fabric.
  • Scarily Competent Tracker: Major Koerner, who's able to narrow down the search radius based on the first balloon's carried weight and how long it was in the air.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • Details about the Inner German Border defenses are very accurate.
    • All cars use the correct East German numbering system. Ironically, they were made using West German plates and dyes which would be used briefly after the wall fell, creating an unintended anachronism.
  • State Sec: The Stasi are the most prominent bad guys in the film, referred to as the SSD (Staatssicherheitsdienst, or State Security Service).
  • 2 + Torture = 5: Implied. After several months, Peter sees Josef Keller again at the pharmacy, only to find that he's become very distant and addicted to painkillers from his time with the Stasi. Josef quietly warns Peter to stay away; Peter could get into serious trouble simply by associating with Josef now.
  • Unfinished, Untested, Used Anyway: The second balloon. While Peter and Günter have learned a lot from their first attempt, saving on trial and error, they're unable to risk testing the balloon for two families because there's no more time.
  • Weather Saves the Day: In the late evening on September 15, Peter and Günter drive to the border to check the wind. After throwing some grass into the air, they determine that it's perfect for their flight and head back to get their families and the balloon.

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