Monday, June 22, 2015

CRACKER? The Red Baron (2008)

                “The Red Baron” ("Der rote Baron") is a biopic about the most famous fighter pilot is history.  It was written and directed by Nikolai Mullerschon.  The movie was filmed in the Czech Republic, France, and Germany.  The decision was made to use English for the dialogue.  It was very expensive, but was a terrible flop at the box office.  Apparently German audiences were not interested in a movie that glorified a war hero, even if he fought in the less evil of the world wars.

                The movie opens with the tired trope of the boy seeing a plane and dreaming of flying.  Ten years later that boy is now a pilot in Northern France in 1916.  Lt. Manfred von Richthofen (Mathias Schwieghofer) drops a wreath honoring a fallen foe with amazing accuracy into the grave itself.  The Red Baron should have been a bombardier!  The first dogfight comes only five minutes into the movie.  The Red Baron shoots down an S.E. 5 and then goes to the crash site where he helps get medical care for the downed pilot Roy Brown (Joseph Fiennes).  They both meet a comely nurse named Kate (Lena Headey).  Love triangle alert!
                Every hero needs a villain and the Red Baron gets his in a British ace named Hawker.  The torch is passed when Richthofen shoots down Hawker.  This is one factor in the Red Baron being awarded Le Pour L’Merite (“ the Blue Max”) and command of the famous Flying Circus.  Higher command, including the Kaiser, wants to make Richthofen into a celebrity for morale purposes.  He is uncomfortable with this and his pacifist beliefs do not jibe with his superiors’ win at all costs attitude.

  His squadron is a small unit featuring a variety of characters including his brother Lothar.  Lothar is younger and more aggressive than Manfred.  They disagree on tactics and philosophy.  Manfred counsels his men to target the enemy planes, not the pilots. One of his men is the famous Werner Voss (Til Schweiger) who acts as a cynical counterpoint to the Red Barons chivalric nature.  He is also something of a friendly competitor.  Voss is a fascinating character, but he does not get the screen time of Kate and Brown.  They keep showing up.  Richthofen shoots Brown down (again) and they meet in no man’s land for some manly bonding.  It’s Brown’s turn next time and Manfred ends up in the hospital where he is able to renew his tense relationship with the snippy Kate.  In real life these two would never get together, but this is a movie so …  Will he choose her and a promotion to head of the Imperial German Air Service over continuing to lead his men into battle?  Which choice is most likely to lead to a climactic duel with Brown?
Von Richthofen and Brown - the revisionist version
The obvious question is how accurate the film is.  The answer is not much.  You don’t have to know much about von Richthofen to guess that large parts of it are bull shit.  It begins immediately with the young baron seeing a monoplane before they would have existed in Germany.  The real Red Baron may have dreamed of flying, but when he entered the military he volunteered for the cavalry.  He only switched to the air service after his unit was dismounted and given boring tasks.  Before he ended up in Northern France to start his rise to fame, he was a back-seater on an observation plane on the Eastern Front.   A chance encounter with the famous ace Oswald Boelcke got him into fighter training.  The movie’s early lead-up to his command of Jagdstaffel 2 is fairly accurate.  He did shoot down Hawker, win the Blue Max, and get command of the squadron after Boelcke’s death.  He did have his plane painted red, but the movie’s implication that he did it to scare the enemy seems farfetched.  Manfred does suffer a bad head wound and undoubtedly did meet at least one nurse during his convalescence, but there was no romance with a nurse named Kate.  Needless to say he also did not have an ongoing bromance with Roy Brown.  They only met once and it was very briefly.  That one brief encounter was the day the Baron died.  Boringly the movie decides to do that famous encounter off camera.  The final scene implies the legend that Brown shot down Richthofen.  For a movie that showed no compunction in violating the truth, it is puzzling why they did not recreate the refuted, but official version of the death.  Most experts feel that the incident did involve Brown coming to the rescue of a friend, but his stay on the Red Baron’s tail was brief and very unlikely to have resulted in the single bullet that killed Manfred.  Most likely the .303 bullet came from an anti-aircraft gun.  How boring!

The biggest faux pas of the movie is the way the Red Baron’s character and philosophy are depicted.  The movie gets this almost completely wrong.  Although he was a cautious pilot, he was not cynical about the war and it is very doubtful that he mouthed off to his superiors.  He also did not avoid targeting enemy pilots.  Quite the contrary, he urged his men to aim at the pilot.  The real Red Baron was primarily a hunter who was driven to accumulate victories.  (The movie conveniently leaves out his famous commissioning of silver trophies for each win.)  His cold personality is realistic, but then the movie undercuts this with the sappy romance which was totally out of character.

“The Red Baron” is competently made.  The acting is average.  Schweighofer was apparently cast mainly for his boyish good looks, not his acting chops.  Headey seems to have wandered into the movie.  There is little chemistry between the two and the romance is forced and implausible.  Of the supporting cast only Schweiger makes an impression as Voss.  He has the charisma Schweighofer lacks.  Fiennes participation feels like they decided they needed a name actor.  He seems bored with the role.  Perhaps he was unmotivated due to the shameful shoehorning of his character into the script.  It is just one of many unrealistic elements in the film.
"Don't fret, Kate.  Few women can compete
with my beauty."

The action is the only thing to recommend the movie for war movie fans.  The CGI is acceptable and better than in “Flyboys”.  The cinematographer sticks to the usual frontal cockpit shots intercut with machine guns firing.  There are eight dogfighting scenes and there is some attempt to have some variety.  This can result in some silliness like a cool, but ridiculous night dogfight.  One nice result from the campy multi-coloring of the Flying Circus planes is this is one dogfighting film where you can follow the various characters.  The movie does not avoid the clichés common in this subgenre.  The young boy sees a plane and dreams, the villainous foe,  the hero loses his best friend(s) and becomes increasingly disillusioned, the air field is attacked, romance with a local girl but bros before hos, missing lucky charm = death, WWI pilots live in a chateau.  And we get the trip to the trenches to remind us how dirty war actually is.
Actual gun camera footage from WWI

How this movie was green-lighted is perplexing.  In an age where anti-heroes are de rigueur, “The Red Baron” looks like it should be playing on a double bill with “To Hell and Back”.  But then again, portraying von Richthofen realistically as a jerk probably would have been just as box office blah.  What the Hell, just watch it because it’s pretty entertaining.  Your girlfriend will enjoy it and you can feel superior as you snort at the silliness.

GRADE =  C  


  1. Honest to god, Von Richthofen and Brown is far more entertaining then this.

  2. A whitewash of a killer, and a notable addition to “alt-history”. Night combat? Give me a break.

    1. I like that "white wash of a killer". Good line.

    2. Killer?! He was a soldier doing his duty - like the French and Brits did. Enemy buried him with full military honors, what do you make of that? If he were American, the airspace would be probably named after him ;)

  3. Das Boot was very faithful to the book it was based on which was a work of fiction but whose historical accuracy exceeds this movie or flybys by several orders of magnitude. The one parallel with Baron is the tendency to portray the German side as mostly misunderstood knights whose reputation was sullied by the bullies in charge.

    So the baron is chivalrous here and in Das Boot it was the first officer that was a Nazi;the rest were good Germans.

    Truth is Richtofen was a bastard lol.

    Have you seen 'The Little Orange Prince'?. It's playing in America now and has about the same regard for truth as this movie and leverages the same apologetics.

    1. Make that "bastard" a "badass" and you're right ;)

  4. I just want to point out some notes:

    The reality behind Richthofen and Kate's releationship is murky. Richthofen was actually nursed by a woman named Käte Otersdorf after his injury, and there is at least one picture of the two of them together. Long after the war, when she was an old woman, she claimed that they had exchanged love letters. The Baron's mother did say years after the war that Richthofen had a secret love that he planned to marry after the war, but it’s not clear that Otersdorf was actually that woman.

    Richthofen gave an explanation for painting his plane red. He just the flamboyant step of having his Albatros painted red when he became a squadron commander. His autobiography states, "For whatever reasons, one fine day I came upon the idea of having my crate painted glaring red. The result was that absolutely everyone could not help but notice my red bird. In fact, my opponents also seemed to be not entirely unaware [of it]".

    Also, while there is no evidence of Richthofen mouthing off to his superiors, he did come to become disgusted by the war at the end of his life. He lost all his old friends in his squadron, and he had come to realize that Germany would probably lose the war. His autobiography states, "I am in wretched spirits after every aerial combat. I believe that [the war] is not as the people at home imagine it, with a hurrah and a roar; it is very serious, very grim."

    1. Interesting. I've never heard of that. Where did you find that information? I've read a letter to his nurse once, and it was very matter-of-factly and neutral...nothing to imply a closer relationship. And yes, he mentioned that the war was impossible to win early on.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.