Page last updated at 15:32 GMT, Tuesday, 1 April 2008 16:32 UK

German war film challenges taboo

By Tristana Moore
BBC News, Berlin

Scene from The Red Baron, pic courtesy of Niama Film/Nadja Klier
The Red Baron is shown becoming disillusioned about war

He is a handsome, blond, young pilot - and he's not your typical baddie.

In the new film The Red Baron, which had its premiere in Berlin on Monday night, Germany's legendary flying ace, Manfred von Richthofen, is portrayed as an emotional, sensitive man.

A replica of the Fokker triplane from World War I was planted outside the CineStar cinema in Berlin's Potsdamer Platz, as crowds gathered for the traditional red-carpet welcome.

Funnily enough, although the film has been billed as a taboo-breaker, given the fact that von Richthofen is depicted as a heroic figure, many young Germans have hardly heard of him.

"Who is the Red Baron?" one woman asked me.

But, like it or not, the film is bound to provoke another round of soul-searching about Germany's wartime past.

Scene from The Red Baron, pic courtesy of Niama Film/Nadja Klier
The upper-class pilots behave like spoilt children

Dashing airmen

Manfred von Richthofen, who shot down 80 British, Canadian and Australian pilots during World War I, is played by the dashing German actor, Matthias Schweighoefer.

The film shows how 24-year-old Von Richthofen and his fellow airmen treat the war like a sport, hunting down the enemy in lively air-battle scenes.

"It was fun," they say, after engaging in a dangerous dogfight.

The pilots, who come from an upper-class background, behave like spoilt children.

They take their fur coats into the cockpits of the fighters.

But as the war progresses, and the casualties mount, Von Richthofen's initial idealism fades.

The young pilot, known as "the Red Baron", who painted his plane red, falls in love with a nurse, played by the British actress Lena Headey.

Personal struggle

Von Richthofen gives her the credit for opening his eyes to the cruelty of war and after other pilots die in action, the Red Baron becomes disillusioned.

In the film, he is seen to be undergoing an immense personal struggle.

Historically Germans have been reluctant and there are strong voices in Germany still saying we're not allowed to do this: a film about a German war hero
Nikolai Muellerschoen, director

On the one hand, Von Richthofen is portrayed as a German war hero, who led Jagdgeschwader I, a German squadron of fighter planes in his bright red Fokker triplane. But on the other hand, Von Richthofen falls in love and gradually realises that the war cannot be won.

The film, with its sentimental touch, makes you aware of Von Richthofen's humanity.

The young officer falls to pieces when his friends die, he buys a harmonica for a friend, and he feels embarrassed because he cannot dance well.

Hero of his time

For Germans, the film is controversial.

"You have a completely different perspective here," said the actor Matthias Schweighoefer, who plays the leading role, despite the fact that he used to be afraid of flying.

"But I can understand that one has problems with a war hero."

Scene from The Red Baron, pic courtesy of Niama Film/Nadja Klier
The pilot acquired his nickname after he painted his plane red
The 27-year-old actor said Von Richthofen was "a hero of his time… he was a brave man."

Schweighoefer said he gave a private screening to the Hollywood star Tom Cruise, who was in Berlin last year filming Valkyrie, a historical drama about the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

"We watched it together, and afterwards Tom jumped up and said, 'It's great that you made a film like this in Germany'," Schweighoefer said.

The fact that German soldiers are depicted as heroes is contentious.

Difficult territory

Normally German films dwell on the extremism of the Nazi regime, focusing on the perpetrators of atrocities and the victims of the Holocaust.

It is clear the makers of The Red Baron knew that they were venturing into tricky ground.

But they claim it is an explicit anti-war film.

The writer and director of The Red Baron, Nikolai Muellerschoen, said: "Historically Germans have been reluctant and there are strong voices in Germany still saying we're not allowed to do this: a film about a German war hero.

"But the film makes a very clear statement against war. In it Richthofen says that he understands everyone has turned this world into a slaughterhouse and the war cannot be won.

"He says he's not going to be the immortal god that Berlin wants him to be; he knew millions were lured into the trenches with such propaganda," he said.

The film, which cost 18m euros (£14m; $28m) to produce, also stars the British actor Joseph Fiennes as Capt Roy Brown, a Canadian pilot whose plane is shot down by Von Richthofen in their first aerial encounter.

So who was the Red Baron?

The Blue Max

Manfred von Richthofen was born in Silesia in 1892 into a rich Prussian aristocratic family.

He went to an army cadet school and after World War I broke out, he joined the Flying Service in 1915.

In 1917, Von Richthofen was awarded the highest military honour in Germany at that time, the Blue Max.

Later, he became the commander of the Jagdgeschwader I (wing) formations, which became known as the Flying Circus, because the fighter planes were brightly decorated aircraft.

Von Richthofen was 25 years old when he was killed in combat in the Somme Valley in April 1918, shortly before his 26th birthday.

The exact circumstances of his death remain unclear.

The Red Baron received a lukewarm reception at the Berlin premiere.

The film opens in German cinemas on 10 April and it will be interesting to see whether it rekindles interest in the legendary German flying ace.

Print Sponsor

video and audio news
Clips from the film

WWII pilot to apologise to city
28 Mar 08 |  Somerset
Merkel tells Knesset of 'shame'
18 Mar 08 |  Middle East


Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific