“Der Rote Baron” is showing in den deutschen Kinopalästen as we speak, but the motion picture was not actually meant for a German audience: this is but part of the clever ruse. The film was actually made in English and then dubbed back into German by the mostly Allemanic cast.
Having convinced us of their peaceful intentions through more than a half-century of “Guys, we really messed up circa 1933-1945”, the obvious intent is to swamp the English-speaking world with a film depicting the charming gentlemen fighters of the first weltkreig in order to disarm us as they prepare for their dastardly plans.
Why, as we speak, Georg Friedrich von Preussen is polishing his pickelhaube and dusting off his feather cap in preparation for this latest Prussian plot for world domination. While the Western world worried itself sick over global Islamism and the Chinese threat, little did we know that a swelling irredentism was brewing deep within the hearts of every Berliner; a tear developing in the eye at the mere mention of Tsingtao; a soul in mourning for the loss of Tanganyika. How naïve we were not to realize that all those bright young Germans spending their gap year teaching smiling Herero natives in Namibia were actually forward units of intelligence-gatherers yearning for the return of Ketmanshoop and Swakopmund to the Germanic fold.
While we don’t actually share the Germanophobia of, say, Chesterton or Churchill, it has to be said there is something a touch distasteful about Prussian militarism. The ideal militarism, we believe, is about 50% Swiss, 40% British, and 10% Austro-Hungarian. Nonetheless, we are forced to admit that before the German grape went distinctly sour ’round 1933 there were a number of rather interesting characters, and Manfred von Richthofen is undeniably among them. (Well, obviously there were some pretty good eggs around after 1933 as well).
Born in 1892, Freiherr von Richthofen was born into an interesting (though Protestant) family. His uncle, Walter von Richthofen, moved to Denver and started the Chamber of Commerce there. Uncle Walter founded the town of Montclair, Colorado and there built Richthofen Castle, now supposedly haunted (perhaps because the evil commercial spirit has developed suburban homes on the grounds and put the Red Baron Pub in the basement). Another uncle, Ferdinand, was a noted geographer and scientist who has a range of mountains in deepest China named after him.
But Manfred is, of course, the most famous of the lot. He developed a keen sharpshooting ability by game-hunting from the age of eleven, and put this skill to great effect as a fighter pilot in the Imperial German Army Air Service, the world’s first air force. With 80 kills, he was the greatest ace of the First World War, beating René Fonck’s 75 and the 73 of Major Mick Mannock (VC DSO & Two Bars MC & Bar).
As the Daily Telegraph reports: “Much of von Richthofen’s reputation as a gentleman combatant stems from his famous decision to abandon a dogfight with a British pilot when he saw that his opponent’s gun had jammed.
“Rather than finishing the Briton off, he forced him to land and then disembarked from his own aircraft and shook hands with him.”
Mr. Schweighöfer has proved a cornerstone of the production, staying faithful to the director Nikolai Müllerschön while funding was found, lost, found, lost again, and finally raised entirely by a private group of individuals. While not terribly aristocratic, he does seem able to convey the casual swagger required by our image of the dashing young von Richthofen. The parts of the trailer where he’s a little weepy seem a bit naff, but such scenes probably shouldn’t be in the movie in the first place. We’ll wait until we see the actual film before convicting.
The medal dangling from von Richthofen’s neck is Prussia’s highest honor: the coveted “Pour le Mérite”, nicknamed ‘The Blue Max’.
Richthofen’s love interest Käte is played by the Briton Lena Headey. Ms. Headey played Queen Gorgo in the much-ridiculed recent Thermopylae film “300”, and was wife to Dougray Scott in “Ripley’s Game”, a 2002 film which was much better than I expected.
“Don’t worry, Katie my dear. I brought the smelling salts in case you are overwhelmed by the jaunty angle of my cap.
Joseph Fiennes was dragged from a peaceful meadow in which he had been wandering to play the Canadian ace Capt. Roy Brown.
Richthofen’s squadron includes Til Schweiger as the legendary Werner Voss, Volker Bruch as Manfred’s brother Lothar, Maxim Mehmet as the fictional Lt. Sternberg, Steffen Schroeder as Lt. Bodenschatz, Hanno Koffler as Lt. Lehmann, and Tino Mewes as Lt. Wolff. I’ve never seen anything any of these people have been in, and so can offer no opinions. Rather nifty, though, is that Richthofen’s splendidly-named mother Kunigunde is played by Mr. Schweighöfer’s actual mother Gitta.
The film also features a dog.
Richthofen does meet Kaiser Wilhelm II, who offers the ace a few congratulatory words.
Wilhelmine Berlin is recreated with the help of computers. Seen here, Charlottenstraße.
What do the critics actually make of the film? Variety reports that “the production and costume design soar but the drama and characters hardly get one wheel off the ground”.
By comparison, even Roger Corman’s iffy 1971 “The Red Baron” (aka “Von Richthofen and Brown”), looks surprisingly good. And in sheer aerial exhilaration and ambition, John Guillerman’s 1966′s “The Blue Max” dramatizes the same period much more cinematically.
Political correctness is rife, with an invented character (Maxim Mehmet) repping various German Jews who flew in WWI, and Kaete popping up at intervals (and in the most unlikely places) to lecture Manfred about the evils of war.