The following telephone interview with Matthias (Mattie) Schweighöfer, the actor who plays the Red Baron in the controversial film of the same name, is part one of a two-part interview series. The second interview will be with the film’s director, Nikolai (Niki) Müllerschön.
One of the driving forces that provoked my pursuit of these interviews was so I could introduce the lead players behind this film and show their profound courage in resurrecting that bloodbath known as The Great War and the complex killing-machine known as The Red Baron. The second reason was to voice my reaction to the very mixed reviews of this film that began overseas and reverberated in this country. It is my opinion that negative appeal at the Berlin premiere developed from fear— stemming from a world-view of the powers behind the 2nd Great War. My feeling is that if this is indeed true, then it is time to put a stop to such thinking, so that “The Red Baron” may finally be appreciated for what it is—a well-documented, astutely written, work of cinematic art. It is important to understand that the filmmaker did not make Manfred von Richthofen a hero. The Red Baron was a respected, legend throughout the world, long before the director was born. Among other things I feel it’s important to think about the tremendous power of the media and the responsibility of good journalists, which is to be objective and fair at all costs. As always, these thoughts are strictly my own.
In my opinion, “The Red Baron” is a superbly researched, sensitively enacted exploration of a man torn between doing his duty in a raging war and his own conscience. In this respect, von Richthofen’s dilemma is one of eternal relevance. More than anything else, the film succeeds in its ability to raise provocative questions. For me, there is nothing greater than this.
How and when did you get involved in “The Red Baron” project?
Five years ago a filmmaker-friend told me that he wanted to make a film and he wanted me to accompany him to meet the director and producer. We went to a small city near Stuttgart in Germany. It was there that Niki (Nikolai Müllerschön) told me that the project was called “The Red Baron,” and that he wanted me to play the lead role.
I said, “Hello…you’re kidding, right?”
I couldn’t believe it. Then two years later, he confirmed his offer and we began shooting. It was great! I didn’t even have to audition. He just knew what he wanted.
Did Niki know you, or had he seen you before in another film?
A friend of Niki’s had made a film in Germany and I was in the movie. Then the filmmaker went to LA in order to find distribution. He met Niki and showed him the movie. Niki said, “Oh, he’s the Red Baron! He’s Manfred!”
Well you do look exactly like him! Especially, in that scene where you are sitting at a table with Käte and you look down, then up at her.
Yes, I do look like him. It’s scary!
How exactly did you embody him and become the Red Baron?
It took a long while for me to find the character. I would say, about seven months. Then we worked step by step for two years. It helped that I had a great dialect coach named Andrew Jack. He came from the set of “Lord of the Rings” and taught me everything about how upper class Germans of that time lived and spoke. Then we had a boot camp so I could learn to think militarily.
Are you militaristic by nature?
Oh no, just the opposite! (laughs) I have a sense of humor but I am mostly very shy.
Oh yes. Manfred… he had this dream as a boy. He wanted to fly. Then he became a fighter pilot and a hero. But Manfred had constant moments in his short life when he was shy and very lonely. I became him in those moments when he was not this hero or super star, but when he was lonely. This loneliness and shyness that lives in my own personality helped me to find Manfred’s character and embody him. So I could draw on my own personality and the rest happened with Niki’s help and through very lengthy shoots.
Did you also read a great deal about von Richthofen?
Yes, I read everything I could find about and by him. I read extensively about the war and met with his family. I also had much physical training and learned the mechanics of flying a plane.
Did you meet von Richthofen’s grandnephew? Is he still living?
Yes, I met him! He’s also a friend of Roland Emmerich, I think.
How old are you, Mattie?
It’s interesting how you physically age throughout the film, through your mood. Lon Chaney, Sr was able to do this—-through expression.
I love characters that feel loneliness. I can sense this and easily draw upon my own life. It is this loneliness that makes you older or younger. When you have good moments then you look younger.
I read that you did not study acting but that it came naturally as the child of actors.
Yes, my parents are stage actors. Because of this, I was alone most of the time when I was young…and actually, for most of my life. That was because my parents were always working.
Have you done any stage acting?
Yes. Germany has a large theater culture. I was born behind the wall. We had no T.V. My parents were always working—always rehearsing. I was literally raised in the theater. After school, I went directly to the theater to meet my parents and wait while they worked. That was my life. I was nine years old when the wall came down.
In which city were you raised?
I grew up in Frankfurt. My parents divorced and my father moved to Berlin. He was contracted there as a theater actor there for four years. My mother and I stayed in Frankfurt.
Was that the norm for actors—to have these long-term contracts? That must have been very difficult for you?
Yes, it was difficult. That was the norm for actors. There were no cinema actors there, so the only way for an actor to make a good living was on the stage. An actor could earn a great monthly salary in that way. It was certainly difficult at that time—impossibly so—but now I’m thankful for that life.
Was that your sister in the film? She looks a bit like you?
No, I have no sisters—just me.
Then who was the actress with your last name?
Oh, that’s my mom! The mother of Manfred is my real mom.
What was it like to work opposite your mom?
I loved it! It was great! The funniest part is that my mom learned English at the age of thirty-nine, when the wall came down. Andrew Jack had to work very hard with her because she had trouble pronouncing “th”. This made her so nervous! Andrew Jack worked with Robert Downey, Jr. in “Sherlock Holmes” and “Chaplin.” It is because of him that we could all speak English decently.
Well you all did a fantastic job! The English sounded great! It’s funny, but the only one who sounded unnatural to me was the British-born, Joseph Fiennes. I’m not sure why! Perhaps he was uncomfortable with the Canadian accent… do you enjoy flying?
I enjoy it more than I used to. In Europe, cities and towns are closer to each other than in the United States. You can travel most places by train. Before we made the movie, I was petrified of flying. This was because of a traumatic flying experience when I was a child.
Did you experience turbulence?
Oh, way worse than turbulence! It was terrible! People were screaming. I’ll never forget that as long as I live! Then after the film, I began therapy for this fear and now, I’m completely comfortable flying. I love it!
Can we speak about July 6, 1917 when Manfred was shot in the head? I was impressed by the way you enacted the neurological effects of that trauma. I am the daughter of a Pathologist and notice small details. Were you coached by a Neurologist on the set?
No, we had no doctor on the set. I read a book of letters that Manfred sent to his mother. After he was shot, I noticed that the style and physical handwriting changed. I believe it was then that he began to think a great deal about his own mortality and questioned why he was doing what he was doing. It struck me that everyone has wounds from childhood. I thought maybe his wound hurt him all the time and reminded him of that crazy day when he got a new chance at life. I could relate to that.
I was impressed by your embodiment of his slow physical and emotional deterioration. For example, when he screamed at the other pilots, his brother and Anthony Fokker. Also, the uncontrolled tremors in his hand and foot, and his shell shock as the bombs fell. None of these were evident prior to July 6, 1917.
Thank you so much. That’s so amazing that you noticed all this! I’m so happy!
Do you consider acting a job?
I love acting. It’s not a job it’s my life. I’ve been acting since I was three. In many ways I feel like Manfred. He had obligations and had to be brave. In Germany, you are obligated to be brave and tell your story to the young, so they can learn from you. Manfred became this crazy hero when all he wanted to do was be a pilot. When he became well known it was difficult for him when he fell to low depths. He was a pilot who suffered these emotions. It had to be awful for him. I wanted to portray him as he was in loneliness. For him it was always about that and losing people. It is the same with me because of my parents, my job and other personal things. When you are young and there’s such pressure to be brave, it’s difficult. At twenty-five he should have been partying, not under such pressure to get things right, or die.
In his memoirs von Richthofen describes the way his father discriminated between the words “sportsmanship” and “butchery”. He writes about his own wavering between the two. Do you think he was always conflicted about this, even before July 6, 1917?
For me, Manfred was always a sportsman. He came from nobility. In those days if you wanted to be a pilot the only way to do this was to rise from nobility or join the army. When you are young you want to change the system. He got caught up in the system and became a blood-hunter, but all the while he wanted to retain the sportsmanship of his youth.
I’ve read much about the nurse, Käte and seen her photographs. Do you know her age at that time?
I know she was older than Manfred. We read of a possible love affair but of course, this could be a myth. At any rate, it was necessary to the film—as a mirror of life. When there was a chance to be grounded and have a family, we had to portray this.
Can we discuss the CGI, technology, weaponry, plane engines and their movement?
We shot the dogfights in front of a 40-meter, outdoor green screen. We had two different cranes. One plane on a hangar required a 100-man crew. We filmed 10-20 second sequences and shot all day. We built every plane as they looked then, and hung them on a mechanical arm. Then we climbed up a 10’ ladder to get inside. In those days, planes were constantly rebuilt. Pilots like Werner Voss would take new engines from other planes and from Bentleys. Voss replaced Fokker engines with these to make them faster and more efficient. New gun technology was constantly invented, as well.
Why was the film shot in Prague and not Germany?
Among other reasons— because it was cheaper to shoot there. Also because of the beautiful countryside, open spaces, endless tiny villages and streets that resembled those of 1914.
Were the dogfights the only scenes shot in front of the green screen?
Those and one outdoor street scene in our version of Berlin— where I raced to meet Hindenberg and the emperor. The remainder of the film was shot live.
Can you find similarities between WWI and other wars? Certainly, Saddam used much poison gas in Iraq. Do you think we can ever learn from these?
War is always horrible. It’s hell. It’s horrible for soldiers to fight for their lives every day. So many will die and this will never change. I hate that there was a WWI and WWII. I hate all wars, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Can you foresee Americans’ reaction to “The Red Baron”?
It’s so hard to know. More than anything, I’d like to show that it’s not always about the killing but about young guys thrown into impossible roles with inhuman responsibilities. It’s about your mind and the possibility of changing it even when you’re caught in the system.
Do you think Manfred knew he’d die that day? I read that he knew the wind was not in his favor the morning before he left, but he flew anyway? I could feel his despair by the way you got into the cockpit that day—so heavily.
Yes, I believe he knew, and was probably happy to end things. He changed so many lives. Because of him, many Germans questioned the war and what they were doing there.
Do you think he went against the system?
How much of a role do you think his head injury played in his poor decisions at the end, and his weakness in faculties?
Probably a great deal. It’s all so ambiguous but it certainly raises questions. I believe Manfred knew it was time to say goodbye and welcomed this. I’m also sure he shouldn’t have been allowed to fly and that this was his way to change the system in the end.
Are you worried about your own fame and your reaction to this?
Well I’m pretty well known in Germany. I just go on. I started my own Production Company and want to make films. I will soon be thirty and it’s my responsibility to show the younger generation the way. Perhaps I can change one mind, or maybe millions.
Do you write?
Yes, I just finished my first script. I’m an actor but I can write things down. I think a director should also be an actor. It’s what I love about Clint Eastwood. He understands.
Do you think you’ll move here?
I have a great American agent and would love to make more films in the United States. I also love speaking English. I don’t have dreams of being a Hollywood star. I just want to be a good actor and pursue my passion.
Is your girlfriend an actress?
No, she’s a script supervisor. I could never be involved with an actress. We’d never be together. It would be awful. We’d have no private life.
Best luck at your premieres!
Thank you, thank you, thank you! Cross your fingers for us!