The picture, one of the priciest German movies ever made, tells the story of World War I flying ace Manfred von Richthofen, a dashing aristocrat who, by shooting down 80 enemy planes, became the war’s top fighter pilot.
Even as the war raged on, Richthofen’s short, eventful life and spectacular death in battle captivated the German, British and US press.
But now in “The Red Baron,” Richthofen gets a distinct pacifist spin that historians believe says far more about contemporary Germany, still scarred by its militaristic past, than about the idol of yesteryear.
The picture, made in English to boost its potential for worldwide distribution, follows the dramatic trajectory of Richthofen’s life: from cocksure flyboy to media star, then tortured hero and finally glorious martyr.
“He was a mass murderer who defended his country,” the German actor playing the Red Baron, Matthias Schweighöfer, told reporters. “And he was a pop star who signed autographs.”
The film was financed privately for €18 million ($28 million) and opens Thursday. Preview screenings have drawn mixed reviews.
In the opening scenes, the pilot who earned his nickname for painting his Fokker tri-plane bright red is seen basking in his celebrity as he racked up military conquests.
But the horrified pilot begins expressing doubts about the war, and Germany’s prospects of winning it.
“We have turned our world into a slaughterhouse,” an anguished Richthofen cries in one scene.
The pilot’s death at the age of 25 on April 21, 1918 is dramatised with British actor Joseph Fiennes playing Roy Brown, the Canadian pilot who may have downed the German ace’s plane.
Jasper von Richthofen, a distant cousin of the Baron and the head of the Richthofen family association, admitted the film was probably not very true to life.
But he said his famous ancestor has always served as a surface onto which generations have projected their ideals.
“They have created a very modern hero — someone who has doubts and questions whether the war should be fought and whether it can be stopped,” he told AFP after viewing the film with 50 other members of the Richthofen clan.
“The question is what kind of war hero can Germans live with today?”