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March 17, 2010

Film: ‘Red Baron’ grounded by faulty script

The Red Baron
Starring Matthias Schweighofer, Til Schweiger, Tino Mewes, Joseph Fiennes and Lena Headey. Directed by Nikolai Muellerschoen. Rated PG-13; 2:09. Starts Friday at Village 8 Theatres. LEO Report Card: C.

Given all that went down last century, films that celebrate German military heroes are not something I normally rush to see. But, seeing as how the SS has been taking such a beating lately (“Inglourious Basterds,” “Dead Snow”), I felt ready to indulge “The Red Baron” with an open mind. After all, the Baron flew long before that most tarnished era of German history. He fought with valor and mercy, insisting that his men — Jewish pilots among them — not shoot at enemies already plummeting toward earth. In the opening moments of the film, we see an example of The Baron’s grace during warfare when he soars over the funeral of a fallen British pilot and drops a wreath into his grave, its banner reading, “To Our Friend and Enemy.” Despite many kills, The Baron — played decently by well-known German actor Matthias Schweighofer — tries to maintain his humanity and the honor of his profession.

Which isn’t to say I liked this film.

Its trouble has nothing to do with national image and everything to do with a weak narrative, a flimsy sense of conflict and a lead character who is difficult to empathize with. The filmmakers’ obsessive attention to the battle sequences pay off in some dazzling aerial dances, but better care should have been taken with the love story, an element central to the film’s plot. I honestly could not care less whether Baron hooked up with Nurse Kate (played by Lena Headey, memorable as Queen Gorgo in “300”). Their scenes together are too weighty to ever leave the ground, and although the concept of Nurse Kate bringing about Baron’s transformation is good enough, its execution is quite forced. Too bad, because lost in this shuffle is an interesting character arc, where Kate enlightens Baron to the fact that his legend is being misused by the government as an object of propaganda.

One of the challenges to dramatizing past events is building intrigue around outcomes already known to audiences. In that sense, history may be the ultimate spoiler. If we are to care about a famously sinking cruise ship, there had better be a rich, human element on board the vessel. This is ultimately what foils the ascent of “The Red Baron.” There’s that, and the filmmakers’ tendency to play against the film’s key strength. With the air combat being as good as it is, the choice to skip over the Baron’s final flight and land us at his funeral is a little baffling. At this point in the film, one last, great confrontation feels owed to us. Alas, writer-director Nikolai Muellerschoen jumps over this battle, choosing that moment to go emotional. Noted in the film’s press packet is the two weeks it took Muellerschoen to create a first draft of the script. Having seen the film, this comes as no revelation.

Aviation enthusiasts and WWI buffs able to overlook some story flaws should know “The Red Baron” opens March 19 at Village 8. The dogfights, as well as the machines that growl across the sky, are impressive.