Shattered Taboo: Film Honors German Flying Ace Red Baron as War Hero

It was chocks away last night for a film that aims to shatter a taboo of more than half a century by openly celebrating a German war hero: the fabled flying ace known as the Red Baron.

The almost $28 million adventure epic "Red Baron" feeds into a new national mood that has become less hesitant about honoring German battlefield bravery. The government is even talking of bringing back a modern version of the Iron Cross, the gallantry medal awarded in the First and Second World Wars.

The reason is clear: as the German Army moves into combat zones in Afghanistan and beyond, it needs to rediscover its military traditions – and create heroes. The film, the Berlin premiere of which was attended by members of the Richthofen clan, tries to square a very German circle: to extol the pilot’s virtues while declaring war to be evil.

“There are strong voices in Germany that still say we should not be doing this,” Nikolai Mullerschon, who wrote and directed the film, said.

But, he added: “The film makes a clear statement against war. Richthofen says that the world has been turned into a slaughterhouse.”

The Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, shot down 80 British, Canadian and Australian aircraft between 1916 and 1918 – more than any other pilot of the war. Yet it was left to the British to keep the legend alive: the most popular German Ambassador to London since 1945 was Hermann von Richthofen, given the benefit of the doubt because of his family ties to the Red Baron.

Perhaps it was the incident when the Red Baron opened fire on a British aircraft and, on seeing that his enemy’s gun had jammed, forced him to land, got out and shook his hand. A scion of a proud Prussian family, von Richthofen seemed to share the English view of aerial warfare as a kind of dignified blood sport.

The Germans were not so sure, not least because his exploits were trumpeted by the Nazis. After 1945, German films acknowledged Count Claus von Stauffenberg, who tried to blow up Hitler, as a kind of war hero.

The Red Baron of the film is happy only when he has an Englishman in his sights. Later he is allowed to develop doubts about the meaningless bloodshed at Verdun. “He is the forerunner of today’s megastars,” said actor Matthias Schweighöfer.

The Red Baron was 25 when he was shot down on April 21, 1918. A Canadian pilot, Roy Brown – played by Joseph Fiennes – claimed to have pulled the trigger, but an Australian machinegunner, Sergeant Cedric Popkin, fired the fatal shot.