As a First World War fighter pilot, the Red Baron set records for air combat victories. Ninety years after his death, the glamorous fly boy is helping to break a long-held German taboo. For the first time since the Nazi era, a German-made blockbuster is celebrating a German-made war hero. It’s a no-no in a country still scarred by the barbaric crimes of the Hitler machine. There, silver-screen soldiers are typically depicted as lunatics, unflinching zealots or deeply conflicted conscripts—not idols.
But in one of the most expensive German movies ever made, flying ace Manfred von Richthofen, who shot down 80 British, Canadian and Australian airmen before being killed at 25, in 1918, in battle over the Somme, is being portrayed as a brilliant and chivalrous fighter who delighted in his own celebrity. “Our goal is to shoot down planes, not pilots. We are sportsmen, not butchers,” Richthofen lectures his fellow flying aces, the glamour boys of the First World War. Also known as le diable rouge (“the Red Devil”), the cocksure media darling—whose wartime exploits were recounted in Allied newspapers as well as the German press—earned the moniker for painting his Fokker triplane all in red.
Shot entirely in English to increase its potential for global distribution, the film opens this week across Germany. British actor Joseph Fiennes, star of Shakespeare in Love and brother of actor Ralph Fiennes, plays Capt. Roy Brown, the Canadian pilot initially thought to have downed the Red Baron—a claim that was later discredited. (Many historians now agree that Australian machine gunner Sgt. Cedric Popkin likely fired the fatal shot.) “So often Germans say ‘sorry’ for the history. But he was a hero. He was a legend. He was an icon,” says Matthias Schweighöfer, the blond actor who plays Richthofen in the $28-million film. “And it’s possible, now, to say that.” M
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