TCC Films: Night Crossing

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Night Crossing

Tired of superheroes and special effects? Weary of ear-damaging noise levels and gore-fests? Had it with bumbling parents and their smart mouth kids? Rent “Night Crossing,” the 1982 Disney release based on the true story of two families who escaped from East Germany in 1979 in a homemade hot air balloon.

The film opens with news footage of the conditions in East Germany (GDR) at the time of the escape, but be ready to stop the action and answer some questions. For our TCC test audience (one eight-year old girl and two nine-year old boys) the sixties and seventies are ancient history and require some explaining.

The story opens with three families — the Kellers, the Strelzyks and the Wetzels — all of whom are close friends. When the Keller’s oldest son, Lukas, is killed trying to escape to the west, his family is destroyed by his death and the cruel treatment of the survivors by the secret police, or Stasi. (The violence here is brief, but disturbing. We see and hear as Lukas is torn apart by automatic machine gun fire from weapons imbedded in the border fence. Be prepared. This is the only such scene.) The other two families realize that they can no longer live as prisoners in their own land. They resolve to escape.

One of our young viewers pronounced “Night Crossing” both “epic” and “awesome.” We agree.

Peter Strelzyk (played by John Hurt) hatches a plan. He and his mechanic friend, Gunter Wetzel (played by Beau Bridges) will build a hot air balloon to carry themselves and their families to freedom. The movie follows them as they work out the details. They need over a thousand yards of taffeta to sew the balloon. How and where will they get so much fabric? And, in a nation filled with spies, how will they explain such a purchase? They claim to be leaders of a camping club whose members are making tents and sleeping bags. This ruse works the first time around, but on a second try at building a balloon and escaping, they find themselves just a few steps ahead of the Stasi, who are looking for two men making large purchases of cloth.

We watch as Gunter works all night sewing in his attic, then works all day at his regular job. We watch Peter and his older son, Frank, building the cage and burner in their garage, as they, like Gunter, try to avoid rousing suspicion in their watchful neighbors. We watch as the Strelzyk family prepares to leave their beloved mother and grandmother behind. To tell her their plans would put her life in jeopardy, but their awkwardly casual good-byes are wrenching.

A sense of dread competes with a sense of hope, as the families race to make their escape. Gunter’s wife, Petra (played by Glynnis O’Connor) grows more and more fearful for their safety. They have two small sons, and she knows their arrest and imprisonment will mean the boys are taken away and raised in a state institution. She convinces Gunter to quit the project.

Peter and his wife, Doris (played by Jane Alexander) continue to build and test the balloon. They make one attempt and fall heartbreakingly short of the border and freedom. They leave the balloon behind and make a reverse escape, out of the mined borderlands and back home.

Knowing that they will soon be tracked down, the Strelzyks redouble their efforts to build another balloon. This time, the Wetzels agree to join them. This part of the movie is a race, as the Stasi look for the owners of the abandoned balloon and the families work day and night to build another, better one. The children who watched with us were engaged and anxious, rooting for the families with each step and misstep. One of the boys cried out, “I need you to live,” and kept asking, “Do they make it?”

The movie is a hymn to friendship and the enduring human quest to be free. It’s also the rare film in which parents are seen as adults who are strong and faithful guardians of the children in their care. The children respect their parents and the parents are worthy of that respect.

One of our young viewers pronounced “Night Crossing” both “epic” and “awesome.” We agree.