Published Mar 11, 2010In the opening scene of The Red Baron, a partially accurate biopic about Baron Manfred von Richthofen (Matthias Schweighöfer), a celebrated German dogfighter during WWI, a group of privileged boys takes aim at a deer, excited by the prospect of shooting it for sport. When a plane flies overhead, they drop their weapons and chase the plane, having found a new game to play. Jumping a few years ahead, we see the obvious parallel, with Richthofen and pals making a game out of shooting British pilots out of the sky, unconcerned and unaware of wartime implications.
While clumsy and overly simplistic in didactics, showing boys puffed up by seeming pride and honour, only to deflate when broader context crashes down on them, there is a sharp awareness of political undertones and gender roles, even if it isn't directly addressed. Richthofen is more than happy flying around using murder as another form of skylarking until Käte (Lena Headey), a nurse treating his victims, points out that there are perspectives in the world aside from his own and that he is being exploited for propaganda purposes. Since he wants to bone her, he pretends to listen.
In theory, this tale of crushed idealism, anchored by a peculiar, strangely maternal romance, should make for affecting viewing, but these characters are their worldview and little more. There is no humour or unifying spirit to lead us to believe that Käte would have any interest in the uncharismatic dogfighter and the wooden handling of every sequence, earmarked by flat exposition, doesn't carry a motivational trajectory, leaving every action to broadly defined ideologues.
That being said, the visual effects (in particular, the dogfight sequences) are stunning to watch. About halfway through the film there is a night-time aerial battle that dazzles and captivates with mid-air explosions and superb photographic manoeuvring. Even if the field battles struggle in choreography, with soldiers falling down well before bombs explode, these moments of Zeppelin shootings and fighter aircraft chaos more than make up for it. (VSC)