The Lauenstein Brother’s 1989 Short-Film “Balance” and The Fall of the Soviet Union.
“Balance,” by Christoph and Wolfgang Lauenstein is a stop motion film released in 1989. The Lauensteins are twin brothers who were born and raised in West Germany, and their film “Balance,” went on to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Short in 1990. The film portrays five men fighting over a box on a platform which needs to remain balanced. The film was released around the time of the dismantling and collapse of the Soviet Union. The short film is an allegory to the inherent greed and selfishness of human nature as it pertains to why the communist Soviet Union collapsed.
The stop motion film takes place in a bleak and almost empty space, on a platform balanced by the weight of five men. These identical men seem lifeless in their appearance, wearing long black coats, with pale faces and bald heads. The only thing that differentiates the men are the numbers on their backs. Which I often associate with prisoners or people who are part of a “system,” to dehumanizes them.
One character takes a step forward and the platform they are standing on becomes unbalanced, so the other characters step forward as well to maintain the balance. In reference to communist society all these men are trying to achieve an equal goal, to get to the edge and go fishing. So through cooperation they are all able to step to the edge in perfect balance and fish as they want. Here we see the men equally clothed, equally equipped with poles, and equally balancing the platform.
The use of camera angle in this film portrays the teetering between both balance and imbalance, creating suspension. The camera also remains zoomed out as to brutalize the characters. It is hard to recognize the individualism and “heart” of these characters with a viewer so detached from their face and appearance. There is no empathy. The directors decided to alienate the men participating in this system of balance, which is often related with communist systems where the laborers are equal, yet interchangeable.
As these men look in to what is presumably an abyss with their hands behind their back, we understand the curiosity and boredom of their reality with no new outside information or enjoyment, which refers to the iron curtain. Where East Germany is barred from a lot of outside information. Compared to Western Germany where the producers and directors of the film are from with access to global information and freedoms.
Character “52” pulls up a box from the depths, and the other men balance the platform so he can inspect it. He brushes off the black dust to reveal a red box, red is often associated with both desire and communism. This is the only prominent color displayed in the ery black and white shades of the setting. Another man steps away from the group to change the balance and observe the box himself, presumably out of curiosity and desire for control.
Desire to acquire and learn is a common occurrence according to human psychology. Curiosity and acquisition is recognized by the Four-drive theory in which humans have intrinsic motivation to acquire, bond, defend, and most importantly, learn. This theory also tells us humans will be reactive — and that is exactly how the film plays out. A ticking of the box sparks even more curiosity and desire for this object.
The box begins to play music. Stalinist repression, included secret police, political prisoners, but most importantly control over books, radio, and television broadcasting. The government for a long period also has control over all businesses and its workers. This music box is a representation of life outside of the iron curtain, and in some sense capitalist society. New music, something outside of the bleak isolation and controlled environment they are living in. Each of these men desire to listen to the sound as they become obsessed. One character even has a humanizing moment when he begins to dance to the music, a brief moment of “freedom,” from the system he is living in.
Communist theory typically revolves around common ownership and distribution of property. The idea being, that if everyone owns everything, nobody does. Yet humans by nature desire more for themselves. In theory these men could push the box to the middle and all share the music, but in practice humans don't actually want that, humans are reactive. The men fight, and individuals seek dominance. When one man is on the edge hanging on for life, we get a close up of his eyes as he realizes that not working together will ultimately doom them all. Sadly, he realizes this too late.
Communism is often recognized as a “universal solution.” It is this idea of human beings working in cooperation. This happens in the beginning of “Balance,” but this film speaks to its downfall. That when the outside is introduced and one man gets something more than the others, human by nature of greed focus on their individual needs. Desires of the greater good and cooperation between them become doomed.
In the end nobody reaps the reward. The product is not distributed equally, and the system they live in has failed, only one character remains and he will never retrieve what he desired. Intrinsically we want materials and advantage. Communism fails to recognize this. This inherent greed and desirable outside object introduced on to the platform undermine the balance and control of the communist system, just as it happened to the Soviet Union.
When the film was being produced it was most likely the Soviet Union still existed yet was collapsing from the inside, and it was not until later in 1989 when Gorbachev decided to loosen the Soviet grip on the countries of Eastern Europe, which led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and an overthrow of communist rule throughout Eastern Europe. Months after the film was released.
Humans are inherently selfish and when presented with options, help themselves first. Arguably the communist system fails to recognize many aspects of human nature including greed and selfishness, and by that sense it is always bound to fail, or in this case: Become unbalanced.
The final image of the film is bitter and haunting, as a single remaining character, “23” stands on the perfectly-balanced platform with the chest unreachable on the far side, due to his selfish actions. We can come to the conclusion that there are several reasons why it is unreachable for him. One of my initial thoughts was it is because of the platform he lives on. The platform is the system which must keep balance. Millions of people died under Soviet leadership and the system broke. The film is an allegory to the collapse of the Soviet Union, whose broken system does not work in practice, due to the nature of humans. This shows that the selfish and greedy man, “23” may not be at fault. Instead, the inherently flawed and dehumanizing system he was slave to.
Who is to blame?
“23” for being selfish? How the platform he lives on was designed? Or the outside box that was introduced and corrupted the system?
If capitalism never existed to disrupt a communist society could the system remain balanced? Or would human greed still eventually collapse the system? Theres a lot of ways to interpret this.
What do you all think?
Lauenstein, Christoph and Wolfgang Lauenstein, directors. Balance. HBK Hamburg, GHK Kassel, 1989.
“Joseph Stalin.” Oxford Reference, www.oxfordreference.com
Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/