(2008) Biographical Drama (Monterey Media) Matthias Schweighofer, Til Schweiger, Lena Headey, Joseph Fiennes, Maxim Mehmet, Hanno Kofler, Volker Bruch, Richard Krajko, Steffan Schroeder, Lukas Prizkazky, Iveta Jirickova, Vlastina Svatkova, Axel Prahl, Gitta Schweighofer, Brano Holicek, Julie Engelbrecht, Jan Vlasak, Luise Bahr, Irena Machova. Directed by Nikolai Muellerschoen
During the First World War, it wasn’t just a collision of nations. It was the 19th century being pulled forward, violently, into the 20th. The concepts of nobility and civility were turned around by the nose by the realities of brutal, modern warfare.
Baron Manfred von Richtofen (Schweighofer) came from the German nobility, but nonetheless had a fascination with flying. While most of his class would be joining the cavalry – a gentleman’s pursuit – von Richtofen was firm that when World War I started, he would join the Imperial German Air Service, the predecessor of the Luftwaffe. That was where, he felt, he belonged and his success showed him to be correct. With his brother Lothar (Bruch) and friends Werner Voss (Schweiger) and Friedrich Sternberg (Mehmet) at his side, he had formed the Flying Circus, a brigade second to none in shooting down enemy planes during the war.
One such victim was Captain Roy Brown (Fiennes) of Canada. Von Richtofen pulled the wounded flyer from the wreckage of his plane and with the assistance of passing nurse Kate Otersdorf (Headey) helps apply a tourniquet to his leg before leaving the Canadian in the care of the nurse.
Von Richtofen is appalled when his Lothar strafes and kills an enemy pilot who had already been forced down. Later he gets into a dogfight with Brown who had escaped the German POW camp that he’d been taken to after being nursed to health by Kate. Once again von Richtofen shoots down the Canadian and lands to see if he’s all right, damaging his own plane in the process. In No-Man’s land, the two share a friendly drink at which time the Red Baron, as he has come to be called by the Allies, discovers that the nurse who’d tended to Brown was in love with the dashing German air fighter
Upon his return, von Richtofen receives the news that his friend Sternberg has been shot down and killed, which sends the Baron into an emotional tailspin, much to Lothar’s disgust. During an ensuing dogfight, von Richtofen is wounded in the skull and sent to be cared for – but you can guess who now can’t you?
As Kate and Manfred begin to grow closer, Kate is disturbed by von Richtofen’s cavalier attitude towards the war. She takes him on a tour of the hospital and gives him a tongue lashing for treating the war like a game. As his friends and protégés continue to be shot down like flies, the Red Baron discovers that he is being used by the German high command to sell a war they can’t win. When he speaks out to his commanding officers about it, he is sent back to active combat after having been offered a position in the Rear Echelon. So back to the skies he takes for a final date with destiny.
This is a gorgeously shot film that makes the most of its aerial footage. Some of those sequences are really well-shot (the ones with practical aircraft), although the CGI dogfights are unconvincing for the most part. This was one of the most expensive movies made in Germany to this date (and also one of the biggest flops) but it doesn’t appear much of the budget went to computer effects.
The dialogue is also cringe-inducing and florid. For example, at one point a melancholy Manfred tells Kate “You are my greatest triumph” as he prepares to march off to his doom. Cue weepy violins. Of course, it might have been more meaningful had there been an actual romance between the two. All that is really known is that there was a nurse named Kate Otersdorf and von Richtofen knew her. How romantic the relationship was is subject to conjecture; there are no records and no correspondence confirming it. Certainly there could have been but the very class-conscious von Richtofen might not have been amenable to a relationship with someone of a lower social class.
And about the real von Richtofen. Yes, there’s no doubt that he was a gentleman of his time but the chivalry that he espoused was a lot different than what we think of the term today. Not only did he not get angry about strafing enemy pilots, he encouraged it. He often targeted pilots once the gunner had been taken out; that was a way of ensuring that the pilot wouldn’t live to fight another day. While he felt camaraderie with enemy pilots and often saluted them as antagonists, he had a war to win and knew that in order to win it Germany must have control of the skies.
Still, it is pleasant to see combatants portrayed in such a manner and there is no doubt that enemies treated each other with greater respect back then than they do now. In some ways, The Red Baron is a bit of an anachronism in its own way as having Captain Brown exclaim to Manfred “She has the hots for you!” The filmmakers try hard to make an inspiring, thrilling war epic but sadly end up making the movie look like just another bloated, failed war picture that has enough going for it to be worth a look but not enough to look all that hard for it.
WHY RENT THIS: Some nice aerial footage. Heroic portrayal of a bygone age.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Stilted dialogue. A few too many historical liberties.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of wartime violence and some sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the movie was a German production shot in Eastern Europe, the dialogue was shot in English in hopes of attracting an international audience.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the real Red Baron.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $40,239 on a $22.4M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Rent DVD/Rent Blu-Ray/Stream), Amazon (not available), Vudu (rent/buy), iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Blue Max
FINAL RATING: 6/10