The Red Baron (Der Rote Baron) is film that would not be possible if it were not for present day CGI capabilities and green screen effects. The story of The Red Baron deals with the consequences and glamour of air combat and to some extent, ground warfare during World War I.
The pulchritude of flying is shown right at the beginning of the film and though you might imagine it its main component is flight, it is actually the boyhood version of the film’s protagonist on horseback with arms raised watching, in insipid yet appropriate slow motion, an approaching biplane.
Fighter pilots of that era, especially Major Baron Manfred von Richthofen (Matthias Schweighöfer) of the Imperial German Army Air Service, are chivalrous and considerate of their fellow pilots, and their reputations even if that fellow pilot is the enemy. They are hauteur hunters, gentlemen, not butchers, that hunt in the skies “with grace”. Being a fighter pilot is high profile occupation, luxurious even, for the aristocratic of early 1900’s Germany.
The barbarism of war, tendencies exhibited by The Baron’s younger brother Lothar von Richthofen (Volker Bruch), has not entered into their world yet which is ironic since they are fighting in a war. The fighter pilot’s goal is to shot down planes or what target they are assigned, not to kill their pilots. This enlightened perspective, unique to their particular branch of the army, is perhaps a result of their upbringing as many of the pilots see themselves as gamesmen and not soldiers. The enemy planes are their query, parts of them becoming their wall ornaments and trophies.
The realities of war begin encroaching on Major von Richthofen and his squadron, even before they begin getting killed off in numerous combat campaigns, with the introduction of Nurse Kate Otersdorf (Lena Headey) into the film. As a nurse during World War 1 on its Western Front, she is privy every day to the reality and cost of war on the courageous and innocent. At one point in the film, the Baron smiles and jokes about a head wound he received during battle because of the favorable situation that resulted from it between he and her. Upon hearing his casual remark, Nurse Otersdorf takes him to a burgeoning and overflowing Glory/Alexander-like hospital tent from which most of it occupants will never leave. Nurse Otersdork is the reality check for both Major von Richthofen and the film.
The Red Baron houses one of the most well-orchestrated pilot death scenes the viewer may have seen or at least one involving a biplane: a German fighter plane gets shot and catches on fire during a dogfight, the pilot, Friedrich Sternberg (Maxim Mehmet), can’t get out safely, is trapped and begins to be burned alive. A fellow fighter pilot, Werner Voss (Til Schweiger), is following closely behind, watching, powerless to help his friend and comrade. Sternberg turns in his chair and as the plane goes down, waves goodbye to his friend.
If only the other character moments and arcs had as much detail and precision that this scene did. Even when the von Richthofen family is on the screen, you never get a since of fondness between any of them but perhaps that is a reflection of the time period and how only showing feelings behind closed doors was the norm, even when your amediate family is behind those closed doors with you. The budding romance between Major von Richthofen and Nurse Otersdorf is a bit facile, thrown in for garnish, and may be a result of similar romances found in Pearl Harbor and Titanic. If director/writer Nikolai Müllerschön had watched Lawrence of Arabia he would know this was unnecessary. The best moments of their romance are when it is talked about and commented on by others.
As more and more of his squadron die, Major von Richthofen begins seeing the war differently and even realizes that his side should surrender and withdraw before all is lost, a tactic derived from his years of being a fighter pilot.
Nikolai Müllerschön’s The Red Baron is a less entertaining air combat movie than noteworthy aviation films like Top Gun but in some ways a more realistic one. More results and issues of air combat are dealt with in The Red Baron than in the latter film. Within the gun sights of The Red Baron, the drama on the ground begins to over shadow the resplendence of combat in the air. In Top Gun’s favor, its love story is far more impactful and had more attention paid to it, both in script detail and time on screen.