So The Red Baron (2010, dir. Nikolas Mütterschön) is, overall, a rather mediocre film. Very little about it really stands out beyond the impressive dogfighting sequences, although Lena Headey turns into a pretty strong performance as Manfred von Richthofen’s nurse/love interest Käte Otersdorf.
At the end of the film, however, it actually does something I heartily commend. As with many biopics, it ends with an epilogue sequence telling us about the characters. In most biopics, that epilogue focuses on what happened to the characters after the end of the film. But given that Richthofen dies at the end of the film and many of his friends have already died, if the film did the normal thing, there wouldn’t be too much left to say.
Instead, for those characters who had already died by 1918, the film gives us a brief historical sketch of the real people behind the film, like so:
“Manfred von Richthofen
Credited with 80 kills, he remains WWI’s most successful fighter pilot.
Killed in action on the 21st of April, 1918 at age 25.
Buried in France by the Allies with full military honours.”
Fighter ace with 48 victories and Richthofen’s closest friend and competitor until he was shot down on the 23rd of September, 1917.”
In some cases, the text acknowledges the ambiguities it presented as narrative facts.
“Captain Roy Brown
Received the credit for shooting down Richthofen. Until today [sic], it is not proven who truly killed the ‘Red Baron’.
Captain Brown died in 1944 of a heart attack.”
Notice how the film completely avoids admitting the massive falsehood it presents, namely that Brown and Richthofen never met. But it does admit that there is debate about who shot down Richthofen.
No further records exist on her remaining life.”
In this case, what this means is that Mütterschön didn’t bother having anyone do any real research on Otersdorf beyond a quick internet search. While Otersdorf isn’t a famous person, I have no doubt that a professional scholar could track down the basic facts of her life through census records and the like.
But then the film does something that caught my attention, because I’ve never seen a historical film do this before.
“During WWI, many Jewish pilots fought for the German Empire. Many of them were highly decorated fighter aces. They are represented by the fictitious character of Friedrich Sternberg.”
So the film actually acknowledges that Friedrich Sternberg is a composite character and not a real person. Instead of leaving the audience wondering if there really were Jewish fighter aces, or leaving them assuming that Sternberg is a real person, Mütterschön chooses to address the audience directly and clarify exactly what the situation with Sternberg is.
And that is an excellent idea. I entirely understand why filmmakers decide to collapse two or three real people into one fictitious one. The real story may be too complex or confusing to convey in a 2-hour film. Or perhaps the director realizes that introducing three characters will take up too much screen time. In situations like that, composite characters make sense. But they can also result in serious deviations from the facts and leave the audience with a fundamentally false picture of what really happened. For example, Elizabeth collapses the Ridolfi and Babbington Plots into one composite event that is essentially untrue in key ways. Elizabeth would have been a better film if it had admitted its manipulations of fact to the viewer.
From the text, it’s clear that Mütterschön wants the audience to know that there were Jewish fighter aces. Why he wants us to know this I’m less clear on. He doesn’t claim that Richthofen’s unit contained Jewish pilots or that Richthofen actually knew any of them, so Sternberg isn’t a typical composite character in that sense. Rather, my guess is that Mütterschön is trying to avoid looking like he’s glamorizing the Great War by indirectly acknowledging the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany that lead to the Holocaust during World War II. If that’s what he wants, he’s doing it in a rather ham-fisted way. But perhaps he simply wants audiences to know that Jews made patriotic contributions to Germany in the Great War. Regardless of his motives for including the character, I applaud his choice to deconstruct the fiction in the film’s epilogue.
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].