Red Baron biopic aims to ace test

German film is the latest to play on war themes

BERLIN — “The Red Baron” is flying into German theaters this week and looks certain to capture a good chunk of the box office despite the fact the WWI Teutonic flying ace remains largely unknown here.

Popular young thesp Matthias Schweighoefer stars as titular hero Manfred von Richthofen in the Warners-distributed pic, with local superstar Til Schweiger as his trusted wingman.

Lena Headey (“300,” “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles”) plays von Richthofen’s fictional love interest, and Joseph Fiennes makes an appearance as the Red Baron’s fierce Sopwith Camel-flying opponent.

It’s the second pairing of Schweighoefer and Schweiger following their blockbuster comedy hit “Rabbit Without Ears,” which remains in the top 10 here after 16 weeks in theaters.

Indeed, Schweiger’s supporting role is certain to help propel the pic to the top of the charts. Multiplex chain Cinemaxx is exploiting the duo’s hunk factor by targeting femmes and screening the pic as part of its monthly male-free ladies night.

The cast also boasts some of Germany’s most promising young actors as members of Richthofen’s squadron — the original Flying Circus, so-named for their colorful planes.

Maxim Mehmet, who next toplines Universal’s local comedy “Fleisch ist mein Gemuese,” stars as a German-Jewish pilot who decorates his plane with the star of David, while Volker Bruch, who will star as young reporter Stefan Aust in Constantin Film’s upcoming terrorist drama “The Baader-Meinhof Complex,” appears as Richthofen’s brother Lothar.

Helmer Niki Muellerschoen’s e18 million ($28 million) film will introduce German auds to a national hero who has largely vanished from the country’s collective memory — a victim of the nation’s postwar embrace of pacifism that made all things military distasteful.

That, however, is changing. Recent films, both in TV and cinema, have sought to break longstanding taboos regarding Germany’s military history and dared to offer a human face to not only Teutonic victims, but also its heroes as well as the architects of Nazi horror, from Florian Gallenberger’s upcoming bigscreen drama “John Rabe,” which chronicles the real-life efforts of a Nazi official and Siemens exec who used his party credentials to save thousands of Chinese civilians from marauding Japanese soldiers during the occupation of Nanjing, to Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Adolf Hitler hit “Downfall.”

Similarly, recent big-event TV movies like pubcaster ZDF’s “Dresden,” about the 1945 firebombing of the eastern German city by Allied planes, and ARD’s “March of Millions,” concerning the millions of German refugees forced to flee the encroaching Red Army at the end of WWII, enjoyed record ratings.

While “The Red Baron” returns a long-forgotten national hero to the spotlight, critics have inevitably set their sights on the pic and its politically correct antiwar message, charging that the film takes liberties with historical facts and whitewashes Richthofen’s military career.

The Teutonic top gun became the most successful flying ace of World War I after shooting down 80 enemy planes, but in the film, he is shown war’s folly by a fictional nurse, played by Headey.

For the film’s star, “The Red Baron” was never about glorifying the military, but rather about the chivalrous rivalry among the world’s first pilots.

“The film is about these young aristocrats who have no real responsibilities, who want to live forever. They see what they are doing as a game and enjoy the competition,” says Schweighoefer.

The actor became a partner in the pic’s production shingle, Niama Film, joining Muellerschoen and fellow producers Dan Maag and Thomas Reisser. Company is partnering with Paul Knight and Richard Carpenter on John Henderson’s “Catweazle,” a feature based on the 1970s British TV series about a temporally displaced medieval wizard.

Schweighoefer next appears with Tom Cruise in Bryan Singer’s upcoming “Valkyrie.”

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