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17 April 2008 @ 03:40 pm
I finally saw “Der Rote Baron” (2008) yesterday. And, having seen all the available footage of the real Manfred von Richthofen, as well as the 1970 movie “The Red Baron” with John Phillip Law, and read “Der Rote Kampfflieger” as well as two bios about MvR, I have very mixed feelings about this version. The following is a wholly subjective first-view impression.

Let’s start with the best: Matthias Schweighöfer (Manfred), Til Schweiger (Voss), Steffen Schroeder (Leutnant Bodenschatz), Tino Mewes (Leutnant Wolff), and whoever plays Udet - nearly all the *real* main characters are superb. Their performances alone are worth the ticket price. There are also awesome dogfight scenes, brilliant trench war, great comic relief moments, a few wonderfully understated friendship scenes, plenty of visual and SF means, and enough in-depth knowledge of Manfred/the Jastas/World War I for this to have been the ultimate Richthofen movie. It had everything to be at least memorable.

So what went wrong?

As a European/Germanophile-biased viewer, it seems to me that the main flaw is that the movie was conceived, made for, and directed at a global/American market. Everything, from the language to the shoddy dialogue to the drippy music and the all-pervading modern political correctness (which, dealing with World War One from the German side of it, stands out like a fake plastic tooth in a shark’s mouth) seems geared to pander to the tastes of the functionally illiterate X-Box-generation. Which, given the topic and subject hero, I simply can´t grok.

First, the language issue. I saw it in German, anticipating with relish Manfred’s Silesian brogue and the other different accents. Turns out the movie was shot in English, and the German dubbing is so sloppy, it hurts to watch. On top of it, everybody speaks High German, from Manfred to the Kaiser to the flight orderlies. No lisping Silesian, no clipped Prussian, no throaty Yiddish (there´s an (invented) Jewish flier character, Sternberg, who gets an inordinate amount of screen time and Manfred´s-best-buddy-scenes, and who according to the closing credits “represents the many Jewish fliers who fought for Germany in WWI” – cue drippy p.c. again).

Second, the bloopers. Of course the “Red Baron” moniker is inevitable, but 1. it was bestowed by the Brits on Manfred posthumously and *after* the war, so neither Germans nor Allied called him that in his life 2. it´s wrong in German anyway because he´s not a baron, he´s a Freiherr, but the German language version has everybody call Manfred “Herr Baron”, and 3. in English the closest correct title is “lord Richthofen” or “squire Richthofen”, but judging by the lip movements the incorrect and anachronistic “Herr Baron” is also used in the English original version.

More inconsistencies: although his face is truly the spitting image of Manfred, in the movie he sits a horse rather awkwardly and he´s very pale and tall (!), I mean about half a foot taller than Lothar (!!), and he´s so thin and lanky, his thighs look as thick as my ankles: the real Manfred was rather short and squat, and ruddy and packed with muscle due to his passion for riding out and hunting for hours in all weather. The siblings aren´t very credible either: Manfred´s sister Ilse looks like she´s forty, when she was only twenty-five, and little brother Bolko looks also far too old for a teenager. Manfred´s mother is actually played by the mother of the actor who plays Manfred: nice touch, but she doesn´t look a bit like the real Kunigunde.

Another little blooper, I think: when the (fictive) Sternberg is shot down during a dogfight, it looks very much like it´s Voss who shoots at him from behind in the confusion which is a monstruous implication given the real spirit of camaraderie in JG-1, rivalries notwithstanding – someone please watch the scene carefully and tell me I´m wrong!!

More mistakes: Manfred meets the Kaiser on two occasions. On the first, on his birthday, he´s the shiny new Reich´s hero, the blue Pour le Mérite hanging fresh on his chest and the Reich still winning, and his sass makes the Kaiser laugh. On the second occasion, as the Reich and morale are severely dented and both meet on the battle front, Manfred is actually rude and insolent toward the Kaiser. Which, no matter the stress or pain he felt by then would have been so out of character for the real Manfred, I cringed.

Another mistake: in the movie, Manfred´s plane is painted all-red, which it usually wasn´t (until his very last one, the D-III in which he was shot down). Usually, his so-called red plane just had wide red markings. Also, where are Voss´ famous mauve zigzag markings on his (correct) tan wings in the movie!? And why doesn´t a single pilot breathe at least one sample little cloud of vapour as they fly, at that chilly height??

(Second digression, also about the plane: in the pre-release trailer, there´s a scene where Manfred is flying a two-seater (!); Käte sits up front and he drives behind her, watching the rapturous expression of her profile turned to him *cue love theme music from “Out of Africa”*. This scene is not in the movie any more – fortunately.)

There are many little slips, and for most people they won´t matter really. There are others, like the twisted love-hate relationship between Manfred and Lothar (depicted here as a sulking, resentful, spoiled brat), which are likely quite different from the seemingly affectionate and mutually protective rapport between the brothers, but the director/scriptwriter arguably needed a more interesting (read “angsty”) angle. Which isn´t fair to Lothar, but hey, it´s a movie, not a documentary.

Probably in this same spirit of -er- artistic freedom, in the movie Manfred looks around him at the airfield and says, on the morning of his death: "What a beautiful weather for flying". In reality, April 21, 1918 was overcast, foggy, chilly, and a very strong wind from the East blew (which some historians believe pushed him far too fast and deep over Allied-controlled trenches without him noticing, which was presumably his downfall. Hard to think of a seasoned pilot who began his career as an observer from above, and who knew that area like the palm of his hand. Anyway!).

The music is a mix of tacky string theme for love and family scenes, drums and woodwinds (cue dogfights), and a string-with-cello-solo theme with background percussion for Manfred´s awakening to the horror of war.

On the other hand there are several positive things about the movie, too. Some scenes and details are spot-on; take the scenes of Manfred in the trenches under fire (hold on to your seats) or the Siegfried air and land offensive, with zeppelins overshadowing acres of wasted field below like floating behemoths while Manfred´s squad flits around them like miniature hornets. Or the absolutely brilliant, “Phew! and WOW!” moment right at the beginning, when the Brits are just burying the latest fallen ace and suddenly Manfred and three of his mates swoop down on them in a killing formation. I won´t spoil what happens in the split three seconds next, but it´s a genius way of illustrating in a flash, without words, all the baiting fun/boyish spirits/professional chivalry of the German fliers. And the reaction of their commanding officer Bodenschatz upon their return to the camp is priceless (he steals every scene he´s in, anyway).

However, some of the battle scenes were a letdown for me, even with the forewarning that every bit of it is CGI: the planes move far too fast (at least twice the usual 150 km/h), unrealistically too close to each other (guess they wanted to fit as many as possible in a shot while still being close enough to tell them apart), and they maneuver a tad too nimbly for the slow Dolphins and cumbersome "Harry Tates" (HR8). A battle scene unfolded like this: closeup of Manfred (or Voss) smiling smugly as he makes out an enemy squad far ahead (or behind), another smug grin closeup, hand signals “There! They´re there!” by Voss (or Manfred), more smug smile closeup, breakneck turn, rat-tat-tat-tat, foe spiralling down in a trail of smoke, closeup smug “That one´s mine!” grin by Voss (or Manfred). If, like me, you go in hoping to see what an Immelmann loop looks like at last, you´ll be left in the dark.

The third and main reason why the movie doesn´t work overall is due to its having the wrong plot priorities. The best part of the movie is the first short part before Nurse Käte and Roy Brown start taking over Manfred’s own story. As far as it’s known, Manfred never had a girlfriend, and if he had one she left no noticeable mark on him: instead, his musings about the war and his personal evolution towards disenchantment and misery (“Nach jedem Luftkampf fühle ich mich erbärmlich”, in his own words) had everything to do with his experience as a soldier who lost all his friends and then as a commander whose strong views were disregarded or overruled.

So the love affair of the movie (undocumented, unmentioned by Manfred in his letters to his family, and in all probability 100% made up) is superfluous, and at times downright contrived. Lena Headey is a good actress with a distinct presence, and she tries her best as a character that is probably meant to work as Manfred’s awakening conscience but, unfortunately, is just unsympathetic and heavily moralising. Perhaps Käte’s sour, scowling character would have fared better in a different context, one where war and what it does to soldiers isn’t the core subject. But she feels somehow wrong in an all-men war story, and also out of character for a female war nurse in those times. It was entirely a soldier’s universe, and it feels like a woman was horseshoed in the movie to appeal to a wider audience.

By contrast, the far deeper and richer friendship between Manfred and Voss, which as it is already more than compensated for the lack of any female plotline, remains a kind of background theme until their last scene together. There’s a tremendous chemistry between them, and their interacting is about the best in the movie. (Which is the only reason why I’ll see the comedy “Kleinohrhasen” next, because these two are playing in it!)

(Digression Nr. 1: I´m totally unmotivated and unmoved by any kind of slash and steer clear of it, especially with real historical figures, most especially with real historical figures I admire and am fond of, which in the case of Manfred multiplies the “ick” factor exponentially: but the sterling bonding between Manfred and Voss in this movie just begs for a devoted shipper community. Forgive me, Freiherr.)

Then, there’s the Roy Brown plot (played broodingly by Joseph Fiennes who, as usual, plays brooding Joseph Fiennes), who serves to put a name and face to the sporting and noble enemy, who is spuriously shot down and then saved personally by Manfred first by pulling Brown out of his downed plane and then by making a tourniquet with his favourite silk scarf to prevent him bleeding to death. Very untrue, very cliché, and I’m afraid not very much in character with the real Manfred. The bloody scarf, of course, serves as a tug-of-war trophy love link between Käte, Manfred and Brown (cue Knights of the Air tournament love token).

Later on, Manfred crash-lands in a field next to also just-crashed, calmly smoking Brown, and instead of finishing the job and shooting one another, or at least attempting to capture one another, they share a fag and engage in a genially asinine we´re-jolly-good-enemies banter about how all this world war is really an overblown family affair of inbred rulers and how they’d much rather be back in the Canuck Colonies or the Boche woods hunting or wooing reluctant nurses (cue scarf mention); and then they just shake hands and part ways. (A piece of advice: watch Manfred’s pretty nosecrash, and then go out for a few minutes and smoke one, or go to the loo instead of taking the verbal piss on screen.) Near the end, on the fated Sunday morning, we get a closeup of Manfred smiling down at Käte from the cockpit just before takeoff. Slow fade to white. Immediately after – i.e. after NOT showing how Manfred is killed in action, presumably by Brown himself in the movie though everybody knows otherwise by now – it’s Brown who drives Käte to Manfred´s tomb, dug in the middle of an idyllic copse of trees and decorated with a wreath of lilies courtesy of the enemy (cue bloody scarf changing hands again). The last words of the movie are by a tearful Käte over his tomb: “…and did I ever tell you “I love you”?”.

No comment, right?

The overall impression is that of a doomed love story with a great war as conveniently poignant background, a few cameos by interchangeable sidekicks, and much philosophical, pacifist and humanist soul-searching (like Manfred suggesting to the High Command that Germany surrender unconditionally) that feels wrong and completely misplaced, given the almost religious transcendence of war, and the pursuit of military heroism, in Manfred´s generation. So as an epic, it doesn´t quite work, and as a hero´s story it falls short too, because if a heroic tale was the movie´s intention, then in IMHO it ought to have been all about Manfred (and his flight mates); his old-aristocracy Junker upbringing determining his later choices, his passion about hunting and not about flying (he wrote a plane was just a means for him to better pursue his prey); how the rigid, Bismarck-school cadet years, while hammering into him an iron-clad methodical approach and a pragmatic logic, also sparked an independent spirit and a critical view of obedience and of command instead of turning him into another blind soldier; how his traditional strategic training collided with the new technologies, fluid borders and flexible tactics of the first World War ever, and how the hunter in him gradually took over the soldier in order to adapt and survive in the ever-changing conditions of air combat. And, despite the easygoing goofy rapport with his comrades, I missed the more complex relationship hinted at by them in reality – where it was precisely Manfred´s far more distant and introverted ways which won his men´s respect and their trust. This was, after all, a highly disciplined and hierarchy-loving army, with its (aristocratic) upper caste laying down the rules and the behaviour for the troop. In this, too, Manfred was said to be a role model.

Also, personally I think it’s a pity that several make-or-break moments of Manfred’s career are either glossed over indirectly, or rendered inadequately. Example of the latter: the movie opens with a black screen and the sounds of birds chirping, twigs breaking underfoot and children whispering “There! See it? Shht - right over there!” Closeup of a doe feeding in a lovely forest; cut to closeup of a hunting gun slowly aimed straight at the audience and a pair of chilly blue teenage eyes narrowing over the barrel. Nice intro to the passionate hunter aspect of Manfred´s character. Then, as he´s about to pull the trigger, the birds hush and an unseen aeroplane roars overhead. The young Manfred pauses, raises his eyes, then jumps on his horse tethered nearby, followed closely by brother Lothar and cousin Wolfram, and rides out onto a clearing. As the plane rushes above the children, Manfred drops the reins and rides on with his arms flung wide open and his face upturned in sheer bliss, a bit like Leo di Caprio and his “I´m the king of the world!”-Titanic stint. So we´re left with the impression that flying was Manfred´s first true love that lasted throughout his life… but from his own writings, we know Manfred didn´t love planes with their unpredictable, frequently failing machinery and jammed guns – he just considered them a platform from which to shoot his guns – and he didn´t particularly enjoy the cold, dirty, messy and nasty affair that was flying – to him, it just an adequate means for hunting big metal birds.

Later, his watermark killing of the Brit ace Lanoe Hawker is only hinted at: we’re shown Manfred commenting with his comrades how Hawker has downed so many of their own fliers he’s become their top priority and how to identify his plane by the white skeleton painted on its side; cut to Manfred inspecting Hawker’s downed, still-smoking wreck nose-down across a railway line and asking for a screwdriver to remove a trophy, then cut to Manfred affixing the cut-out skeleton above his own bunk among his other trophies.

Nothing is shown of Manfred’s education as a cadet (which, according to him, left a negative and lasting impression in him), or his tense and ambivalent relationship with his father, whose own military career was mediocre and thus he placed unrealistic expectations on his sons, while at the same time resenting their precocious careers which far surpassed his (a reason why Manfred, though a Captain de facto by years of service and own merit, remained officially a Lieutenant; in military families, a son should not overrank his own father).

Then, although there are at least two family life scenes (one after he has been awarded the Blue Max and Lothar wants to show him how he too can manoeuvre a plane on land only to crash it into a pile of hay; another during his last home leave, when Lothar waxes enthusiastically about Germany’s soon to be launched victory offensive, while Manfred sits by silently, eyes downcast in an eloquent conflict of loyalties within him, to his brother and his country on one side, to his own pessimistic appraisal of the outcome of war on the other), his deep attachment to his mother and siblings are also only hinted at.

Also, we know how Manfred took a great deal of time and pains to write his mission reports, and enjoyed meeting with his men to study the newest frontline data and anticipate the enemy’s data; how he often improvised decamping swiftly and setting up camp again where the Allied least expected him to appear; how he spent a nightly bombing of his camp feasting and drinking with his men, singing songs and telling jokes and having a blast underground while the camp was blown up around them; how the Allied believed it was surealy a girl flying the red plane, until the day a Brit pilot was shot down, captured, and invited to dinner by Manfred, when he and his men had a belly laugh when they heard this rumour, which they quickly set aright – so many true and classic anecdotes but, again, there isn’t even a hint in the movie.

If you like war romance stories, you have only a slight idea about the Great War, and your idea of a masterpiece is Pearl Harbour, you´ll love The Red Baron, and I give you joy of it because I really, really wanted to love it, too.

If you like Manfred and his merry gang of airy fellows in a casual way, and you´re cool about historical inaccuracies and character murder, then you´ll probably enjoy it and then forget it.

If you like plain authentic war stories and you know your Remarque and your Roter Kampfflieger by heart, and you have an educated love for Manfred von Richthofen and his JG-1, then stay put for the movie that will truly do him justice - however long it takes. Because this movie, for all the good stuff it has, isn´t the one.
Lauralauramerle on April 18th, 2008 07:39 am (UTC)
There is alot to digest here, and I appreciate the thoughtful critique. Thanks for the in-depth explanations. I fear I am with you in that third group but undoubtedly will see the film anyway.

CKlediablerouge on April 20th, 2008 03:01 am (UTC)
Wow, thanks for such a rigorous review!
I haven't heard anything about the release of this film in Australia. I'm beginning to doubt whether we'll actually see it.
I was considerably disappointed to learn last year that it was filmed in English, as I would love to hear Manfred with his Silesian dialect :-)
I'm also certain I'll be in the third group. I'll most likely be in such an agigated state when watching it because of the innaccuracies and historical licence. Perhaps I can dissociate, and try to enjoy it simply as a work of pure fiction :Z

machiavelli_imp on December 26th, 2009 11:31 pm (UTC)
Australian release
The film has quite literally been released in Australia this month. To be honest, I was forewarned about the historical inaccuracy (but had forgotten about the English dubs) and therefore expected the film to be about a bunch of American-accent-dubbed androgynes who flew in modern bi- and triplanes CGI-ed to look like Fokkers &c. and dressed by stepping on a land mine in a vintage clothes shop. I was pleasantly surprised.

Getting through the love scenes and "tally-ho, old chap" dialogue between Brown and Schwieghöfer is like eating a bucket of wallpaper paste but for me it was worth it to see the JG-1 roles. I think you're correct about Voss shooting down the fictional PC Pilot - my impression was that he was unable to see in the darkness and shot him down either by mistake or because the biplane for which he was aiming flew out of the way. To me it was a flimsy excuse for the director to show the "sacrifice" caused by the unit flying at night instead of huddling in their tents.

As this review points out precisely the things that alternately made me love and hate this film, may I post a link to it in the review at my journal?
deborahkladeborahkla on December 27th, 2009 03:44 am (UTC)
I am so tired of brits playing Nazis (whether it's in the dubbing or onscreen) I can't tell you. Unlike us stupid, uniglot Americans, most Germans speak English--including Til Schweiger. Why not have the German actors who speak English do the dubbing???
machiavelli_imp on December 27th, 2009 05:19 am (UTC)
The film isn't dubbed in English in the usual sense: the original audio track has all actors (except three ten-year-old French extras) all speaking in English. It's the German version which is dubbed, possibly by the on-screen actors, but I didn't get a chance to check, having watched the film with a (British) uniglot. I very much doubt that a non German speaker would find any problem with the audio, but if one does speak German, it's incredibly annoying and counter-intuitive. I assume this effect is magnified exponentially with people who actually know the regional accents each pilot historically spoke.

While Nazis speaking with British accents is annoying, I find it less immersion-breaking than any other accent because during that time period English taught as a foreign language meant the King's, just as we are taught Hochdeutsch instead of Prussian or Bavarian. I'd much rather have actors speak in the language of their characters and have subtitles - Valkyrie is a superbly bad example of the antithetical scenario.

Is it an uncanny coincidence that you found this review shortly after I posted about it? I would love to corrupt people increase interest in JG-1, so I hope it isn't.