Muellerschoen pic is shooting in Prague with int'l cast

BERLIN — Director Niki Muellerschoen’s “The Red Baron” will not only reintroduce one of Germany’s most famous historical figures to a nation that has long forgotten his exploits, it also promises to be one of the most expensive Teutonic films of all time.

The E18 million ($23 million) film recounts the brief career of Manfred von Richthofen, who became the most successful fighter pilot in WWI after shooting down 80 allied planes.

Pic is shooting in Prague with a cast that includes hot young thesp Matthias Schweighoefer in the title role, local superstar Til Schweiger as his trusted flying buddy, Joseph Fiennes as their Canadian challenger and Lena Headey (“300”) as the conscientious nurse who tries to enlighten the German squadron leader.

The legend of the Red Baron is well known to auds around the world, thanks in part to pics like 1966’s George Peppard starrer “The Blue Max” and Roger Corman’s 1971 effort, “The Red Baron,” not to mention the aerial fantasies of a certain Charles M. Schultz-created beagle.

But in Germany, the hero has largely vanished from the country’s collective memory — a victim of the shell-shocked nation’s postwar embrace of pacifism that made all things military distasteful.

For the film’s stars, however, “The Red Baron” is not about glorifying the military but about the competition among young men at a time when the world’s first pilots faced each other in combat with a chivalrous respect unthinkable in today’s air forces.

“The film is about young men without any real responsibilities who want to live forever,” Schweighoefer says. “They see what they are doing as a game and enjoy the competition.”

Adds Schweiger, “It doesn’t glorify the hero stuff at all. It’s really an antiwar movie.”

Indeed, the film explores how the flying ace’s skyrocketing fame and legions of fans were exploited by the German military to recruit young men into the country’s fledgling air force, turning the Red Baron into an instrument of war propaganda.

Muellerschoen, who has been writing the script for the past four years, initially considered shooting the film in the U.S. with an American cast, but ultimately decided to make the film in Europe with German actors for the sake of authenticity.

Yet the helmer remained committed to making an English-language film for a broad international audience. Pic will likely draw comparisons to Tony Bill’s upcoming “Flyboys.” Unlike that film, “The Red Baron” will present WWI from the German perspective.

“Telling the tale of Manfred von Richthofen to the entire world has always been our goal,” says producer Dan Maag, who earlier this year formed Niama-Film in Stuttgart with Muellerschoen, veteran film financier and producer Roland Pellegrino and investor-producer Thomas Reisser.

Pellegrino, a former film fund operator, has in the past few years focused on private placement film financing, which relies on single individuals to put up most or all of a film’s financing. “The Red Baron” has six private investors providing all the coin.

“It really gives us much more creative freedom,” says Pellegrino, who initially sought subsidy money to shoot in the German state of Baden-Wurtemberg.

The limited available coin was not enough for an economically feasible shoot in Germany, however, and the producers opted for Prague and financed the film on their own. Shooting in the Czech Republic is by no means as cheap as it once was, but it still saved the production about $1.3 million.

Niama is in talks with international sales companies to rep the film abroad and in negotiations for a domestic distribution deal for a planned release in the fall of 2007.

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