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Til Schweiger poses on the red carpet as he arrives for the German Film Prize 'Lola' award ceremony in Berlin, April 25, 2008. (Tobias Schwarz / Reuters/Tobias Schwarz / REUTERS)
Til Schweiger poses on the red carpet as he arrives for the German Film Prize 'Lola' award ceremony in Berlin, April 25, 2008. (Tobias Schwarz / Reuters/Tobias Schwarz / REUTERS)

R.M. Vaughan: Q&A

'The Red Baron killed a lot of people. Does that make him a hero?' Add to ...

I'll leave it to film critics and ethicists to unravel the moral implications of The Red Baron, the German-made biopic/reputation-revision of First World War fighter pilot Manfred von Richthofen, which opens today. When the film debuted in Germany, it was met with both praise and condemnation, because, for obvious reasons, Germans are uneasy with any cultural product that appears to glorify their military past. Let's hope they keep that ambivalence going for another 100 years.

Luckily, I am not German, so I can report without too much inner turmoil that, as a spectacle, The Red Baron is full of pleasing eye candy - not the least of which is the loftily handsome Til Schweiger, who plays von Richthofen's best friend, Lieutenant Werner Voss.

Best known in Germany for his enormously successful romantic comedies, Schweiger also appeared alongside Brad Pitt et al. in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, and is set next to star in a film about William Tell. With his square jaw, dirty blond hair, Kirk Douglas-worthy cleft chin and steely glint (the rest of him ain't bad either), Schweiger looks as if he stepped out of the actor-making machine labelled: Lead Man, Military Roles.

In The Red Baron, Schweiger is the clearly the senior star, one surrounded by much younger, peach-faced actors. It's a solid casting choice, as his Voss, a commander uncomfortable in his bossy boots, lends quiet gravity and just the right amount of necessary second-guessing to a film that might otherwise have devolved to frat-boys-take-flight fluffery.

Is this film an attempt to humanize the Red Baron?

Hmmm … I have to really concentrate for a second, because it's three or two years ago that we shot it … And, I wasn't the director! I'm just one of the actors in this movie. So, let me think ….

But you've written, directed and produced movies yourself, so you must understand the question.

I don't know 100 per cent, but there are different opinions about what was the reality of the Red Baron. There's one side that says he was just a soldier, and there's some other historians who claim that he was a very vicious killer.

Walk me through the controversy this film caused in Germany. Is Germany not allowed to have war heroes, even from the First World War?

Uh, yes, there's a certain truth to that, because of the history of Germany in the last century, because of World War II and the Holocaust. For decades, nobody even talked about the possibility of a war hero, Germany had a big problem with saying we have war heroes. Plus, what is a war hero? For me, a war hero is somebody who saves his comrades. The Red Baron killed a lot of people. Does that make him a hero?

At one point in the film, the Red Baron is shown trying to stop the war -


And the explanation we're given is that because he was a member of the nobility, he was naive at first.

Yeah, I mean, that's pretty much in the scenes that he shares with the nurse. She claims he is naive, because he is talking about "the game" of war and the adrenaline of flying. He sees it more as a sport, and she says "you're killing people." But, I don't know if that's the reality. I doubt it's the reality.

Your character was also a real person, and in the film he acts as von Richthofen's conscience. He is also older. Did you perceive the character as the voice of reason in the film?

Oh, gosh! Ha! Yes, he's the oldest, that's for sure. Voss says at one point, "leave now, you have everything to lose," trying to tell the baron not to do this any more. Hmmm. I am the Conscience! Ha!

Given all the controversy, which started before filming began, did you have any ambivalence about working in this film?

No, because at the end of the day, the film is rather more an anti-war movie. Let me turn the question around - what was your feeling?

The film seduces us in the first half, then shows us the ugly reality in the second.

Hmmm, okay. It certainly doesn't say war is great. Personally, if I had had serious doubts about it, I would not have done the movie. And, nobody claimed to make a documentary, you know?

The costumes are gorgeous. This is the best-dressed war movie I've ever seen.

True, they look very nice. The director said, "I want to show how the blue bloods treated the war like a game," and he also said: "In every period piece, everything is old. But they were not old at the time." Why does everything look old in historical movies, when the clothes and houses would have been new? Ha!

Why do you have a tan in the movie? It's the First World War and you're up to your knees in mud.

Wait a second - at that height that they fly, there is a lot of sun. Hmmm, but the truth is I probably just got back from holiday or something.

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