Earlier this month a little known German film opened quietly in Toronto theaters. Undoubtedly most cinemagoers felt little more than passing curiosity upon spotting its title advertised on the marquis--just another foreign film scrabbling for a foothold in the North American market. Intrinsically, The Red Baron deserves little attention. Outside of its impeccable art-direction and dogfight sequences, it barely surpasses mediocre. However, if one takes the time to examine its context, the film has a lot of insight into the attitude of modern-day Germans to their own history and heroes.
The Red Baron depicts the life of Manfred Von Richthofen (Matthias Schweighöfer), the supreme aviator of WWI and German hero. Like many biopics it feels rushed and plodding all at once -- there are year long time lapses in the space of a minute followed by cumbersome pockets of period drama. Most of the action occurs at the German's makeshift airbase in the French countryside, a bucolic retreat perpetually enveloped in rich golden light. The scenery is so lovely and the gaps in chronology so apparent often it seems more an illustrated timeline than a film. Though attempts are made to "humanize" the baron -- both in the sense of transforming the legend to man and also by attributing him an overwrought moral code -- he still comes off as dry as a dusty Encyclopedia Britannica entry.
Somewhere in the last paragraph amidst all the talk about pretty pictures, you may have wondered, "What about the war?" What about the war? The Red Baron spends most of its time hedging around that black cloud, avoiding violence and bloodshed almost entirely. When the filmmakers at last concede to flashing a 30 second vista of No Man's Land, Richthofen delivers an ardent anti-war (or at least anti-casualty) monologue immediately afterward. It is as though the film wants the audience to forget that death is inseparable from war. In particular it wants us to forget that the Germany's premiere war hero killed people (yes, people die when you shoot down the plane they're piloting and they plummet hundreds of feet to the ground, scattering pieces of flaming debris in every direction!).
From the baron's pacifistic leanings, to the avoidance of war, it becomes clear that Germans still feel uncomfortable with their history, especially their military history. Furthering this notion is the filmmakers' inclusion of a fictional Jewish pilot in the baron's squadron. When the pilot dies in combat, there is a heavy-handed scene where Richthofen clasps his corpse sobbing -- a little over the top if you ask me. Also, despite being German produced and starring mostly German actors, the dialogue is spoken in English. Arguably, this could have been a marketing strategy but it nevertheless serves to further distance Richthofen from his origins.
Though the film wants to take a straightforward approach to Richthofen's life, given the tangled web of history where fact, analysis and emotion are interwoven, this is impossible. For obvious reasons, Teutonic nationalism generates suspicion and fear in many. It doesn't make matters any less complicated that Adolf Hitler lavishly decorated the pilot's grave and co-opted him as a propaganda poster boy of Arian superiority. However honorable a man Richthofen may have been and however significant his accomplishments in the realm of dog fighting, the fact remains: he was on the wrong side.
So how did the German people react to Der rote Baron? Though some critics gave it positive reviews and a buzz of controversy surrounded it (which normally entices folks to the theater), it was an utter box office failure. As one of the most costly films ever produced in Germany, it will undoubtedly be remembered as an epic bomb.