Reviewed by Marc Glassman
The Red Baron
Nikolai Mullerschon, director and script
Starring: Matthias Schweighofer (Manfred von Richthofen, “The Red Baron”), Lena Headey (Kate Otersdorf), Til Schweiger (Werner Voss), Joseph Fiennes (Roy Brown)
How famous would Manfred von Richthofen be without a lovely cartoon dog named Snoopy? Surely the Red Baron, von Richthofen’s notorious nom de guerre, wouldn’t be invoked nearly as often if Charles Schultz hadn’t chosen him to be a figure of heroic fantasy in the late Sixties. At the time, the wonderfully absurd aerial battles fought between the duo were so popular that a pop tune “Snoopy and the Red Baron,” rose to Top Ten status—and continues to be popular among certain Zooomers to this day.
No doubt the Red Baron would still be famous in Germany but it’s a sign of his on-going international celebrity status that producers decided to make a big-budget film (about $25 million US) about him—and shoot it in English. World War One is brought to the screen with the sort of panache and attention to detail that marked Canada’s own epic Passchendaele. The aerial battles are brilliantly evoked, particularly two where he shoots down a certain Canadian captain named Arthur Roy Brown.
“What,” you say? Didn’t know that Brown was shot not once but twice by von Richthofen before he finally nailed the German aristocrat? Well, you’d be right. The Red Baron is full of historic nonsense. Brown never met von Richthofen before their fateful encounter in April, 1918 and certainly didn’t save his life after one aerial fight or had a friendly drink with him after another.
But then the film would lack foreshadowing and lose the presence of Joseph Fiennes playing a Canadian hero. Similarly, those darned history books don’t mention a certain Belgian nurse named Kate Otersdorf, who had an affair with the Baron, despite her pacifist ideals. On the other hand, the film would lack charm and sensuality if there hadn’t been a part for Lena Headey.
“What about the Baron himself,” you might be asking: “wasn’t he colourful enough to make a true story interesting to an audience?” Probably—but the filmmakers didn’t trust the material in the historical record. We’re left with a Baron, who is very Romantic, in love with his fellow flyers, the sky, guns, a nurse, and little else.
This Baron fights for glory and honour, not for Prussia or the German Empire. He’s stalwart, protective of his friends and cries bitterly when his Jewish friend, a fellow pilot named Sternberg is killed in a battle. The Red Baron always looks at von Richthofen from a distance, never allowing us into the man or even the heroic aristocrat leading his troops into battle. For the right viewer, this will be an entertaining DVD. But it’s not a film—or a persuasive drama.