One of the most well-known figures of World War I was the famous German biplane pilot Baron Manfred von Richthofen, widely referred to as the Red Baron. I ran across a modest biopic of him, uncreatively titled The Red Baron (2010, dir. Nikolai Müllerschön), on Netflix a couple weeks ago so I watched it for the blog. Unfortunately, I lost my notes somewhere between watching it and sitting down to write this post; hopefully that won’t hurt the accuracy of my review.
The Historical Red Baron
Manfred von Richthofen was a minor German noble (his title, Freiherr does translate roughly to ‘baron’, but it’s a title that all members of the family are permitted to use, not just the senior male) who was trained as a cavalry officer. The quick establishment of trench warfare, however, rendered his unit nearly useless, and as a result he pursued and received a transfer to the German Air Service. In 1915 he was trained as a fighter pilot. Initially he appeared to be a poor pilot, crashing his plane on his first mission as a pilot. But he quickly mastered flying and soon emerged as one of the best fighter pilots Germany had. He ultimately racked up 80 confirmed victories (downing an enemy plane), plus possibly as many as 20 further unconfirmed ones; in comparison the best French pilot had 75 confirmed victories (plus a possible 52 unconfirmed ones), while the best British pilot (Canadian actually) had 72. Unlike his brother Lothar, Manfred was not an impressive pilot, but he was an extremely skilled tactician as well as an excellent marksman; the combination made him a deadly opponent.
In early 1917, after 16 victories, he received Germany’s highest military honor, the famous ‘Blue Max’ medal, and he was appointed to lead a squadron. At this point, he adopted the bold strategy of having his biplane painted red; although this made it stand out against the white clouds and blue sky, it also meant that he was crafting a reputation that would intimidate his opponents. It was this that led to him being nicknamed The Red Baron.
In July 1917, however, Richthofen was badly injured when he suffered a bullet wound to the head. The injury caused him problems with disorientation; he required numerous surgeries to remove bone splinters, and only returned to flying in September. But by that point he had become famous as a heroic flying ace in Germany; the German government actively promoted this legend, including circulating false claims that the British had created an entire squadron whose sole purpose was to find and kill him. The government began to worry about the effect his death might have on German morale, and asked him to retire, but he refused.
On April 21st, 1918, von Richthofen was shot down over the Somme River, taking a bullet to the heart and lungs that probably killed him before his plane crashed (although various stories claim he either died shortly after crashing or was stabbed by those who found him). There is controversy over whether he was shot down by fellow pilot Canadian Arthur Brown (who received credit for the kill) or by ground forces. It is possible that his head injury may have contributed to his death by disorienting him at a key moment. The British treated him with great respect and buried him with full military honors.
The Red Baron
The film basically follows the facts as I’ve outline them above, watching Richthofen (Matthias Schweighofer) as his career develops, and placing heavy emphasis on his relationships with various other fighter pilots, including his brother Lothar (Volker Bruch), Werner Voss (Til Schweiger), the Jewish pilot Friedrich Sternberg (Maxim Mehmet), and, rather improbably, Arthur Brown (Joseph Fiennes). The film depicts him shooting down Brown early on, rescuing him so that he can be nursed back to health by Käte Otersdorf (Lena Headey), and then Brown being released in a prisoner swap. Later he sees Brown crash-land in No Man’s Land and lands to help him, but damages his plane in the process. After sharing a drink, they hope they won’t meet again until after the war, but sadly Brown shoots him down at the end of the film. None of that is real; the two men never met.
One of the main subplots of the film is his relationship with Otersdorf. He first meets her when she helps tend to Brown’s wounds. She continues popping up throughout the film, pushing him to stop thinking of the war as a chivalric game; in a key scene, she takes him to a field hospital and introduces him to German amputees, which causes him to finally realize that war is hell. When he suffers his brain injury she is sent to tend him and she’s somehow there when he leaves on his last mission. Two weeks after his death, she inexplicably arranges for Brown to escort her to von Richthofen’s grave.
The reality behind this is murky. Von Richthofen was nursed by a woman named Käte Otersdorf after his injury, and there is at least one picture of the two of them together. Long after the war, when she was an old woman, she claimed that they had exchanged love letters. There were rumors that von Richthofen had a secret love that he planned to marry after the war, but it’s not clear that Otersdorf was actually that woman.
Perhaps more problematically, the film also seeks to present him as being more peaceful than he actually was. In the film he emphasizes the importance of shooting down the planes rather than killing the pilots; at one point he quarrels furiously with Lothar when the latter strafes a downed pilot. In reality, von Richthofen emphasized exactly the opposite strategy; he wanted his men to focus on killing the pilots and not worrying about the planes. Late in the film, he tries to persuade the German government to accept the necessity of surrender rather than fighting to the last man; he denies the idea that Germany is culturally superior to France or Britain. This too seems to be the film’s invention.
The problem here is that director Nikolai Müllerschön is wrestling with a deep-seated discomfort in Germany with depicting war as heroic. Since World War II, Germans have tended to view war very negatively, and they have worried that valorizing warfare might lead them toward championing men like Adolf Hitler. Müllerschön, however, wants von Richthofen to be a fairly traditional war hero who accomplishes feats of derring-do. His solution is to give von Richthofen a personal conversion moment when he realizes that his gallant activities are misdirected; thereafter he opposes war and wants to stop the slaughter of innocent Germans. So we get to have a valiant war hero in the midst of an ugly war. It’s not an entirely convincing depiction, and it was a quite controversial one when the film came out in Germany.
Another problem with the film is that it was filmed in English, not in German. The cast can’t seem to figure out what sort of accent to use. Schweighofer sounds German, Headey is using some weird German-French hybrid, and several of the supporting actors play Germans with formal British accents. It’s rather jarring.
But the film does have two things going for it. The first is the aerial combat scenes, many of which are extremely well-done. The film makes a serious effort to help the viewer understand the reality of biplane dogfights, and it is these moments that are probably the best in the film. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a better depiction of aerial combat (not that it’s a subject I’ve seen lots of films about). I’ll get to the other thing I like about this film in my next post.
Want to Know More?
The Red Baronis available on Amazon.
If you want to know more, you could read The Illustrated Red Baron: The Life and Times of Manfred von Richthofen. Or you could read his ‘autobiography’ (written at the urging of the German government while he was at the height of his fame), The Red Fighter Pilot – The Autobiography of the Red Baron [Illustrated].