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2 out of 4 stars


The Red Baron

  • Directed and written by Nikolai Muellerschoen
  • Starring Matthias Schweighoefer and Til Schweiger
  • Classification: PG

"You are my greatest victory," coos the German flying ace to his lady love, the beautiful nurse. And that pretty much sums up The Red Baron, this over-the-moon biopic of Manfred von Richthofen - his plane may be red, but the dialogue is purple.

The film picks up the Baron (Matthias Schweighoefer) in 1916 when, young and blond and noble-born, he's building his legend along with his kill count. But already the script is burnishing the myth, promoting him as a gentleman warrior whose self-professed mission is to shoot down enemy planes, and not necessarily their pilots. "We are sportsmen, not butchers," he lectures his comrades, adding with a flip of his silk scarf: "We can fight the war with grace."

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And so we get to enjoy the sportsmen in a succession of aerial battles, directed by Nikolai Muellerschoen with a touch that sometimes rises to the level of competence - the vintage aircraft are always credible, the CGI effects only occasionally so.

As for that matter of "grace," it's laid on with a trowel dripping in fictional embellishment. For example, the Canadian flier Roy Brown (Joseph Fiennes) makes an appearance, but his actual existence comes with plenty of invented twists. In this version, von Richthofen rescues Brown from his downed plane, then sees that his wounds are well nursed. Later, they happen to meet again in no man's land, and (since everyone speaks English) share a civilized chat about the vicissitudes of war that ends with Brown delivering this howling anachronism: "You should hook up with that nurse. I think she's got the hots for you." Hey, whatever, dude.

The lady in question is Kate (Lena Headey), and their love interest is another scripted invention. Not that there's much love on display - every attempt at coitus is interruptus by the damned war. No matter, because Kate's real job here is to transform the baron from one kind of hero into another - from gallant flyboy to tragic humanist.

Thanks to her, his gaze shifts down from the gentlemanly dogfights in the air to the insane bloodshed in the trenches. Thanks to her, he comes to realize that the German high command is using his legend for dastardly propaganda. And thanks to her, we're treated to the confessional proof of his transformation: "We turned the world into a damned slaughterhouse."

Yes, Kate is owed many thanks - too bad their relationship is a total fabrication.

Complete with wooden acting and choppy editing, the result is a war flick that sanitizes this least sanitary of wars, and thus can be considered its own brand of propaganda. No doubt, Baron von Richthofen remains an intriguing figure. His myth endures, but, precisely because it does, what we need is not more burnishing but less - a chance to scrape away the myth's rust to find the man beneath.

Here, his scarves look flashy, his goggles and leather helmet look retro-cool, but that man wearing them remains as hidden as ever. So that's where The Red Baron leaves him, just another legend in a comic-strip panel, an accursed but worthy adversary for the dogged Snoopy atop his Sopwith Camel.

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