That’s why I was astonished to discover I’d missed a big-budget German biopic about Germany’s greatest fighter ace – made back in 2008.
With a budget of 18 million Euros, The Red Baron is notable for being one of the most expensive movies in German cinematic history.
The budget was poured into lavishly realized aerial combat sequences and computer-generated effects that bring the immense scale of World War I vividly to life.
In English-language (despite most of the actors being German) it tells the astonishing story of an arrogant young nobleman whose military career made him a hero to both the Germans and those fighting them.
Von Richtofen is played by German actor Matthias Schweighöfer – an achingly youthful lead who somehow embodies the swagger and arrogance one envisions Von Richtofen having.
Back in the days of 1917, looking like this didn't automatically generate accusations of homosexuality.
Despite being so young and ‘pretty,’ Schweighöfer is utterly convincing in the role – he has a lean and hungry confidence to him that reminded me of the ‘other’ famous Red Baron – Formula 1 racing legend Michael Schumacher. I wouldn’t be surprised if Schweighöfer actually modeled some of his character’s mannerisms off Schumacher.
Richtofen’s success as a fighter pilot soon captures the imagination of the embattled German people – and then the attention of the highest echelons of command. This young nobleman soon finds himself rapidly accelerated up the ranks – until he is in command of the entire Air Service.
In this role, he paints his Albatross biplane red and encourages his friends and squadron-mates to similarly emblazon their own aircraft – the result being nothing short of the ‘flying circus’ he is most famous for.
It attracted the attention of the enemy, but Richtofen's bright red plane was easy to spot in the parking lot.
During his stratospheric rise to the top, Richtofen also woos nurse Käte Otersdorf, played by British actress Lena Headey (best known for playing Sarah Conner in the short-lived Terminator TV series.) Despite her inexplicable accent, Headey suits this role well and their love-to-hate relationship plays out believably (even though it was, according to the history books, completely fictitious.)
In keeping with most movies set in WWI, Richtofen’s journey up the ranks is paralleled by his increasing cynicism at the progress of the war. He starts out as an arrogant young hunter – a ‘knight of the sky’ who treats his aerial jousting as little more than sport.
Later, as he’s invited to view the front lines and Käte takes him to view the crippled and wounded being ferried back from the trenches, Richtofen begins to realize the true extent of the horror he’s caught up in.
The Red Baron neatly conveys all that – but it’s not a perfect film by any means.
My biggest disappointment was the flat ending of the epic. Despite blazing gun-battles and swooping aerial dogfights during the first half of the movie, most of the action occurs ‘off-screen’ towards the end. Von Richtofen’s much touted demise even goes unrecorded by the cameras – which was an achingly depressing anti-climax to the movie.
I guess the writers didn’t want to get swept up into the typical Hollywood cliches – but in a movie of this scale and scope, they needed to. Either that, or they ran out of money three-quarters through!
Secondly – as is typical for German movies – the whole thing was achingly self-aware. In one of several departures from historical reality, a Jewish pilot is added to Von Richtofen’s squadron (supposedly representing the many Jews who enthusiastically served in the German army during WWI.)
When his plane goes crashing to the Earth, the morbid grief that grips a distraught Richtofen comes across as a little affected (Hey, look guys! One of his best friends was a Jew! If he hadn't have died there was no way he would have inevitably become a Nazi!)
This is significant because of the other piece of historical revisionism that crept into the movie – the quiet relegation of Von Richtofen’s close friend and flying comrade Hermann Göring (yes, THAT Hermann Göring.)
The man who would later become one of the great monsters of the 20th century was once a dashing fighter ace attached to Richtofen’s squadron – and even took it over when the Baron fell to enemy bullets. Yet although Göring is featured in the movie and mentioned twice by name, his significance is deliberately understated.
But despite those little flaws, I enjoyed the film immensely. It was breathtaking in scope and vision and a loyal biopic of a man who remains a legend to this day.
One of the great ironies of ‘The Red Knight of Germany’ was that he still practiced chivalry during the war in which that practice lost favor (and combat turned into slaughter on a global scale.)
The Red Baron manages to portray him as admirable, idealistic and heroic - yet doesn’t sugar-coat anything about the arrogant young pilot’s brief, but heady career. (Germans don’t sugarcoat their war movies. They’re still achingly self-conscious about that even decades later.)
The Red Baron is definitely worth a watch.