During World War I, while millions struggled below in the muck, munitions and mayhem in the trenches below, it fell to the German Imperial Air Service to clean the sky of allied planes and balloons. The resultant aerial dogfights achieved almost Olympic Games stature as the ambitious aces on both sides tried to win gold in the confirmed “air combat victories” tally.
The most successful of these flying marksman was the Red Baron, whose in-your-face single-seater was painted over with the colour of blood to strike fear into the enemy, visually taunting his adversaries to hit such a well-displayed target. The plumage of real birds stoops to no such bravado much to the chagrin of their unsuspecting prey in the fields and tree limbs when the largely camouflaged killing machines perform Nature’s population control.
In director/writer Nikolai Müllershön’s highly romanticized portrait of the revered sharpshooter, a heroic attempt is made to demonstrate the futility of war by emphasizing the dove aspect of the hawk-eyed dispatcher of destruction and death.
By casting Matthias Schweighöfer as the infamous Baron Manfred von Richthofen, Müllershön assures himself that the good-looking young actor who is the picture of spoiled innocence will ideally support the filmmaker’s vision. Schweighöfer’s hell raising, life ending portrayal of the wily pilot is at its best when standing up to authority (Axel Orahl as General Ernst von Hoeppner and—notable for his unflinching belief that “God is on our side” and sporting beautifully coiffed mustachios—Ladislav Frej being Emperor Wilhelm II) or explaining the fundamentals of battle tactics and survival to his fellows.
Not surprisingly, the trumped-up love story with a German-French nurse, Käte (Lena Headley brings a convincing devotion to her patients/revulsion with those who keep her wards so full) becomes a bit too maudlin as the dialogue dangles precariously close to the abyss of tired cliché (“You taught me to see what I didn’t want to see,” confesses the smitten aristocrat).
Manipulating events to provide a scene in “no man’s land” between the Baron and Canadian hero Captain Arthur Roy Brown (Joseph Fiennes delivers his brief lines with commendable believability) affords the opportunity for the two conveniently downed fighters to philosophize on what it really is that they are doing in the sky, shake hands and, tellingly, part company hoping to never meet again.
The supporting cast members (especially Volker Bruch’s performance as the Baron’s hothead brother and Ti Schweiger’s obsessive devotion to duty and unequivocal friendship called for in his role as fellow flyer Werner Voss) help keep the pace moving steadily forward, but it’s the many excursions into the air that give the film much of its deadly allure.
Production designer Yvonne von Wallenburg and her battalion of artists, animators, special effects magicians, graphics wizards and costumers fill the screen with a marvellous bounty of breathtaking images from the detail-rich and striking majesty of Berlin to the insects-becoming-enemy planes transitions to the absolute total horror and despair of front-line action.
Much of this truly spectacular result would not have been possible without Klaus Merkel’s expertly varied camera angles and the equally stellar efforts from the editing team (Emmelie Mansee, Olivia Retzer, and Adam P. Scott).
The attention to detail is also most welcome with a covey of scarves draped around endangered necks and the deftly subliminal red-stripe house coat that looks good on both of the short-lived lovers.
Conductor/orchestrator Wolf Kerschek crafts a beautifully balanced, drum-infused soundtrack from the Filmharmonic Orchestra Prague. Composers/music producers Stefan Hansen and Dirk Reichardt are at one with the brutal power and occasional delicacy of the narrative. Particularly effective are Milos Jahoda’s solo cello interventions and Maxim Mehmet’s (who also played Friedrich Sternberg—a Jewish pilot defending the Fatherland …) easy-going harmonica lines. Incredibly, brilliantly, the latter instrument can’t help but add a feeling of the Wild West to the trigger-happy combatants trying to run each other out of Dodge City.
Müllershön’s good intentions are never in doubt, but the insatiable desire to be the very best at blowing human beings out of the air and sipping vintage champagne as the kill-count rises leaves little doubt that the real Red Baron had few qualms about his storied profession. How many other sworn enemies have been buried with full military honours by their enemies? JWR