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On Film4: 4 Sep 1:00AM
The life and times of the German flying ace starring Joseph Fiennes, Lena Heady, Inglourious Basterd Til Schweiger and, as Manfred Albrecht Freiherr Von Richthofen, Matthias Schweighöfer
European co-productions used to be all the rage. Indeed, back in the 1970s, if you wanted to make something more ambitious than a film about a local boy made good or done bad, it was the only way to get your picture financed. Not that most pan-national pictures were any good. The Cassandra Crossing, Voyage Of The Damned, Waterloo - it was as if the dash for international cash created a too-many-cooks scenario on the creative front.
Nikolai Müllerschön's The Red Baron suggests that things have now taken a turn for the better. Sure it might be bankrolled by a cadre of European investors, but watching this war drama, it's pretty clear it's more-or-less the vision of one man. And while those aforementioned movies lacked strong enough stories around which to build an epic movie (Sergei Bondarchuk even managing to make the Battle of Waterloo seem small-scale), here the central tale is amongst the most fascinating of the First World War. For at a time when warfare was a land and water-based endeavour, a German airman not only stamped his mark upon the melee but did as much as anyone to suggest that, in future conflagrations, controlling the skies would be of paramount importance.
As Müllerschön goes to great lengths to explain, Manfred Von Richthofen was no ordinary man. A cavalry officer who turned to flying when it was clear the era of the horse was over, Richthofen (essayed here by Valkyrie's Matthias Schweighöfer) was as much rock star as war hero. Elevated to legendary status by his sporting rivalry with Canadian dogfighter Roy Brown (Joseph Fiennes), Richthofen's kills were counted and recounted in the same way the public might follow a nation's sporting fortunes. And being a handsome aristo, he had the Fatherland's finest fräuleins throwing themselves at him - something which must have amused his nurse Käte Otersdorf (Lena Headey) who Müllerschön insists - without any historical foundation - was the love of the Red Baron's life.
There's actually quite a lot of historical fudge on Müllerschön's menu. That the Baron urged his pilots to avoid killing enemy airmen should prove particularly upsetting to war buffs who, while happy to acknowledge Richthofen's chivalry, are equally aware of his ruthlessness. But for those to whom the Baron was just some guy in a crimson biplane who shot down a lot of our blokes, much of what's here will prove fascinating. From his relationship with his brother and fellow flier Lothar (Volker Bruch) to his admiration for the Jewish airman Friedrich Sternberg (Maxim Mehmet), The Red Baron seeks to make this good-ish German more man than myth.
To this end, writer-producer-director Müllerschön is massively helped by Matthias Schweighöfer who makes Richtofen as exciting and colourful as his preferred means on transport. It's also very good of A-listers Heady and Fiennes - whose presence must have been crucial in securing the money - to give over centre stage to the German cast.
But despite the quality of the playing - and the sometimes breathtaking dogfight sequences - there's an inescapable feeling that there was an even grander movie to be made about the Red Baron. And with Remembrance Day just around the corner, there's no ignoring the fact that, while the rich kids made like Biggles, the bodies were piling up from Bapaume to Peronne.
A pretty successful European co-production strengthened by a charismatic title performance from Matthias Schweighöfer.
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On Film4: 31 August 2014