In this second part of a two-part interview series, I conversed with Nikolai (Niki) Müllerschön about his controversial new film, “The Red Baron”.
The film opens with Manfred von Richthofen as a child on a hunting expedition with two small friends. Manfred is about to shoot a deer when he is distracted by a plane overhead. With his friends in tow, he mounts his horse and sets off after the plane, entranced by its flight. His arms spread outward like wings, he imagines himself flying above the clouds. The scene is brilliant in its simplicity and lack of dialogue. All we need to know about the boy is evident in his face and body. His dreams are no different than our own.
The next full cut is at the graveside of Captain Winston Clyde Walker, a pilot of the Royal Air Force. From overhead, Richthofen drops a memorial wreath on the grave. The ribbon around the garland reads Captain Winston Clyde Walker-Friend and Enemy. Again, the scene is devoid of dialogue but the message is all too clear.
Much has been written about the fearsome, legendary Flying Ace known as The Red Baron. Arriving May 2, 1892, Manfred von Richthofen was the second of four children born to Baron Albrecht von Richthofen of the German Cavalry. Richthofen was shot down in combat April 21, 1918—eleven days shy of his 26th birthday. On April 22, 1918 he was buried with full military honors in Bertangles, Northern France by those of the No. 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps. All allied squadrons posted nearby placed memorial wreaths at the burial site, honoring their respected friend and enemy. In that period between birth and death, Captain Manfred von Richthofen was credited with the deaths of 80 men. Though much remains a mystery about who exactly shot down Richthofen on his fateful last day, records based upon distance, position and recovery of a single, intact .303 British machine gun cartridge fairly ascertain that Canadian gunner, Sergeant Cedric Popkin was the likely killer.
It is these questions of how one becomes a legend, why war makes gentle folk murderers and where one’s conscience eventually if ever, topples the propaganda system of combat, that are the stuff of Müllerschön’s grand epic. Yes, the Great War is the historically accurate backdrop of “The Red Baron” but the film concerns so much more. It is life and death seen through the eyes of a legally exonerated killer, who but for the grace of God could be any one of us.
Can you tell us how you got started in the filmmaking business? Did you go to film school?
No, I never attended film school. I left high school at 17 but really began working in the industry at the age of 16, in order to make extra money when I was in school. I had the great fortune to be best friends with a boy whose father was a well known movie director. I began as a still photographer.
Really! That’s how I became interested in filmmaking too. It is an easy transition from stills to filmmaking.
Yes, exactly. From there I became a camera assistant, then a sound assistant, second unit DP, first AD and then on to continuity scripting.
So you learned every aspect of filmmaking.
Yes. Then at the age of 21, I directed my first long episode in a theatrical feature. After that, I directed several theatrical features—all before I was 30. Then I had two sons and began working in television. Private T.V. had just begun in Europe and it was a great opportunity to be creative and independent. When my oldest boy was about 3 or 4, my family and I moved to LA. We had gone there previously for a holiday and fell in love with the city. That was about 20 years ago.
Did you parents come to visit you in LA?
Yes. I remember my mother brought me a letter. I could hardly read it. I had written this to her when I was 13 years old. In the letter I told her I would be a movie director and move to Hollywood.
Wow, that is something! Tell us more about the different types of filming you did.
I directed about 8 theatrical features—all released in Europe. At that time, I worked in many different genres such as comedy, opera, thrillers, etc. One thriller shot in Germany was in spoken English. It was called Desperate Measures. I also wrote and directed for television and wrote, directed and produced in the United States.
In addition to this, I wrote 3 American screenplays, 2 scripts for Columbia and one script for Roland Emmerich.
Why did you decide to make “The Red Baron” independently and not in Hollywood?
I love the movies and the industry, no matter where it is. In the very early stage, a friend of mine arranged a meeting in Hollywood, but I knew that it wouldn’t work. The way the film was written would have required a huge budget of about $100 million. I knew Hollywood would never greenlight such a risky film with a German war hero as the lead character. Also, I would have had to give up control of the film, which I wasn’t ready to do.
Hmm, a German war hero and a German director… Do you thing WW11 had any influence?
You know, it’s interesting. Historically, those who originally made it in Hollywood were Germans, Austrians and Hungarians—directors such as Wilder, Preminger, all the way up to Roland Emmerich. These original creators of Hollywood all came from that part of Europe, hoping to escape the monarchy. They were the ones who set up the early nickelodeons, which were basically the bourgeois theater of the 19th century. These types of theatricals told stories of the aristocracy to the common people and were the basis for early American movies.
So why wouldn’t the film have worked in Hollywood?
Historically, in any war films from the WW11 period, Germans always had a certain role in Hollywood films. They always played the Nazis. That was the mindset and I understand that. That plus the expense was a bad combination. So as I said, I knew the film would never be greenlighted and I was right. So we found independent producers and investors who were ready to finance the film for $50 million dollars. Then Val Kilmer read the script and wanted to play the lead.
In the end, we decided to go back to our original plan for the project, which cut the budget even further. After all, this was a German story told from the point of view of a German war hero whose legendary status was internationally respected. I thought surely, the German Film Industry would be interested in such a film, but they too, were not willing to take the risk. I thought it would be a good idea to break the (political) spell a little and that we could overcome these kinds of feelings. I knew the film would be controversial and trigger much discussion in Germany, but I was ready for that. After all, Richthofen-specialists and world famous historians with concentrations in WW1 warfare and aerial combat strongly approved the film as to its accuracy. But in the end, backing and filming in Germany was just not possible, so we filmed in Prague, financed the film independently for $21 million dollars—and everything worked out fine.
What attracted you to the Red Baron?
I was always interested in von Richthofen. As a storyteller and filmmaker, he peaked my curiosity. I asked myself, How does someone become a legend? And even with all my extensive research, he’s still so ambiguous and we still don’t have the answers. I never attempt to demystify or explain Richthofen, but while working on the project I tried very hard to understand him. I read everything by and about him. We all did our homework. The cool thing about legends and mysteries is that they remain so.
Can we talk about his memoirs?
Yes, as you know they were written in 1917 and published while he was alive. But of course they and the book by his mother, were huge propaganda.
I read the memoirs and believe that the simple and accessible language and its consistency represent his true mindset.
Yes, definitely. So as I said Amy, the figure of Richthofen interested me to such a degree that I met with Werner Koenig to discuss my ideas about making a film about the Red Baron. Werner was a friend and a very bold, German producer. He was very interested in my idea, but was unfortunately, killed in an avalanche at a location in Verbier.
How sad! I did notice your memoriam to him at the end of your film. Tell us about how you developed the script and your ideas?
Yes, thank you for noticing that. Werner was a great man. We agreed that Richthofen was a great choice and that his story should be told. We also agreed that his story would be internationally marketable. Much like the Titanic, most people had heard of The Red Baron, but little more.
So I developed the script and decided that if I made a movie about the war, I would need a point of view and needed to paint a position. I decided that no matter who Richthofen was, he would deliver my message about the war. Then something extraordinary happened! The more I read about him and materials by him, including letters written in his own hand, I realized that his message about war was completely in sync with my own! His own words showed me that he was more the guy I wanted to speak about and through than I ever imagined! Some criticized me for heroicizing a mass murderer by the film’s dialogue. But actually, his dialogue was taken almost word for word from his own writings. I also discovered that the only thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn! In the end, the film is not so much about WW1 but about what’s relevant to youth and to an audience today.
That’s so unfortunately, true about history. In regard to criticism I also read that some thought you invented Nurse Käte. I happen to know Sister Käte did exist by many documents and old photographs.
Yes, Sister was the way nurses were addressed in those days. In fact, nuns often became nurses in those early years. Käte wasn’t a nun but the title stuck. Some said I even made up the affair between the two to create a schmaltzy love story, but there is documentation as to their suspected affair because she always hung around Richthofen long after she treated him for his head wound. Furthermore, in Richthofen’s published letters to his mother (translated as “Letters from the Trenches” and also published in his mothers book, “The Mother of Eagles” which was also translated as “My Diary”).
I use practically word for word, his own language about Käte in his final monologue to her, days before his death.
In regard to relevance to youth today, I notice that the computer-generated-imagery used for the dogfights reminded me of virtual reality and computer games, with all their disturbing elements.
When I first showed my kids and their friends the film, they completely related to the combat scenes. Little has changed since WW1. Kids today are so much in love with modern technology, the same as Richthofen, Voss and all the other boys of WW1, no matter which their side. Kids today spend all their time competing and controlling such technology in their video games.
I remember going to a one week, V.R. exhibition in Boston. The man I was seeing at the time and I became so addicted we participated in these mind/war games every day. I’m sure it eventually broke us up when he couldn’t come to grips with why I (virtually, of course) annihilated him when he didn’t kill me.
Exactly! It’s like I told my kids when they were playing such games: I said, You just killed 69 people—and they just looked at me. It is our complete slavery to modern technology that is so much like what happened in WW1 and in all wars, including that in Afghanistan. You look at the soldiers and they just smile and you can see nothing has changed.
I showed the war through Richthofen’s eyes and for the longest time he didn’t see it as war, so we didn’t either. Naturally, I was attacked for this but it was important for me to portray the film in this way. You see this when he visits the hospital to view his first friend who is killed. Richthofen can’t deal with this so he denies it and flirts with Käte instead. Then over and over he loses more friends and finally breaks down at the death of Sternberg. This very slow process culminates in his ability to finally see that war is not a game and that he was part of a systematic annihilation of human beings. And of course, he can’t live with this, so he eventually, rebels.
Why do you think Richthofen was allowed to fly after his life-threatening head injury on July 6, 1917?
Well there are certain documented facts we know. The first is that he was shot in the head and the officials didn’t want him to fly but then reluctantly allowed him to do so in the end. They couldn’t allow the biggest hero of the war to be killed so in order to show the world he was fit for leadership, they offered him full command from the ground.
The second historical fact was that his entire physical and emotional demeanor greatly changed after he was shot in the head. He became withdrawn, haggard and depressed. He eventually, stopped eating, knew the war was lost and that he was a lead participant in the slaughter. The third fact was that he flew again. This was his final act of rebellion— to change the system of propaganda.
Why do you think they went along with his wish to fly again?
I don’t think they could stop him. Think of it, he was a god to them. The highest value of Richthofen was his legendary, international fame. Yes, he shot down 80 pilots but this was miniscule compared to those the allied machine gunners shot in a day. Besides which, the air force was completely broke by then. The WW1 German pilots were always rebellious and no one batted an eye. They painted anything they wanted on their aircraft. Imagine, they took the wires out of their caps because they thought the caps looked cool that way. If you did such things today you’d be court-martialed. Even the Americans began doing such things in WW11. Through most of WW1, the air force just wasn’t that important in the grand scheme of things. It was considered a novel toy.
Why do you think Hermann Göring was a second successor of Richthofen and not Ernst Udet, who downed 62 planes to Göring’s 21?
Göring was an operator. Aside from WW11 atrocities, he falsified history. Among other things, he claimed that he flew with Richthofen when in fact Richthofen hated him and refused to let Göring fly with him. Richthofen never named Göring as his successor, but rather, Wilhelm Reinhard. Göring took over command after Reinhard was killed. And you know what happened to Ernst Udet of course.
Yes, all Udet could do was succumb to alcohol and commit suicide in order to rid himself of Göring.
A great film about that period in WW11 history is, “The Devil’s General”!
Thanks! I’m also thinking how Richthofen and Göring are placed together in the film, Von Richthofen and Brown. Did Richthofen even know Göring
No, I don’t believe he did know Göring!
Can we talk about your film’s beautiful musical score?
Dirk Reichhardt and Stefan Hansen are wonderful composers. We had an idea to have the music reflect this world war, just as the images reflected this, as for example, the Budhist flag in the church. In the score you hear African drums, Moroccan influences, etc.
Yes, sort of like Dvorak’s World Symphony idea with all the different influences. Well your score was gorgeous and so successful in getting your story across. Did you have this music in your head from the beginning? Also, did you allow improv?
No. I always try to get great people around me who are better than me. I purposely remain vague to allow the input of my collaborators. I try not to infringe my precise ideas so they can create. After all, I can always edit what I don’t like, later. The script was over written, but the better the actor, the better the interpretation. Also, the less dialogue the better! Actually, Joseph Fiennes had the idea of having Richthofen and Brown sit together and talk. This was to remind people that they were both killers, as well as being human beings. I loved his idea and used it!
Can you speak about similarities and differences between the two World Wars and the real cause of WW1? I’ve never bought the whole Ferdinand assassination as a root cause.
Well all wars are terrible, but they seem to be necessary some time because people can not find more civilized means to solve problems. The main difference between the wars was that in WW1, the intellectual elite of the western world uncovered themselves as people who didn’t know what they were doing. As a result, everyone was disorganized and forced to learn on the job. For example, 6 million men were in the trenches that had machine guns but no helmuts. German helmuts were made of cork, and not very useful. The generals couldn’t deal with all these men—couldn’t feed them, so they allowed them to be killed off. Everyone thought the war would be over in 5 months! WW11 on the other hand, was very calculated and people were well prepared.
Franz Ferdinand was an excuse. There were so many issues brewing. Also, the German Reich didn’t begin before 1817. In 1914 the British Parliament suggested an entente with the Germans. There were many partnerships between countries at that time and there should have been a civilized fix to problems. Austrians however, wanted a war with the Serbians and went to the German emperor and suggested he stick with the pact. The Emperor then wrote to the Tsar and said don’t do this or I’ll have to do that. Europeans didn’t want to stop the war because they wanted to stop Germany from growing, which it was, at rapid rates. The Americans avoided getting involved for the longest time because they were making money shipping horses overseas. Then the Germans were secretly working with the Mexicans before the British intercepted a cable. A couple of weeks later the Lusitania sank, the Americans moved in and the rest is history.
Before WW1 there was no humanist concept. War was part of existence and was not judged as bad. Modern wars are not so clear-cut—wars such as Korea, Vietnam all the way to the current wars. These wars are not fought with conviction. They have no real backing and are of course, disastrous. I am personally against wars but will admit that they do end conflicts—at least for a while.
Aside from the digital recreations was everything else shot the old-fashioned way?
Yes. “The Red Baron” was shot with film cameras and all scenes were derived from flexible rehearsals. Movies are about uncontrolled emotions. I gave the actors leeway and tried to catch moments as they happened, as they appeared, dependent upon the actor’s mood. We all had very high standards when it came to the dogfights. We were not interested in the audience watching flight –we wanted viewers to fly with the pilots. I didn’t so much care about aerial combat as I do about the pilots—the men. We had very long takes. I must have viewed every aerial combat film ever made and thought “Star Wars 1” and Howard Hughes’ “Hells Angels” were the best! Lighting was of the utmost importance. Ambient light cannot be simulated on a stage, so I built a huge greenscreen and shot outside. I studied the movement of planes. In Hughes’ film— shot with real planes. The aircraft reacted a certain way with wind. Then we shot low-tech, on cranes with bungee cords. These were 120-140 kilometers from the ground, but this changed all the time.
Amazing! How long did it take to shoot the film?
It took 61 days to shoot. The 450 shots of aerial combat took 7 days, alone.
Did you relate to any specific character or characters?
Yes—all of them! The more I researched the true characters the more I could relate to them. Then of course, the character of Sternberg was an amalgamation of 4 Jewish Flying Aces. Mattie’s hunched posture was modeled after Richthofen’s actual stance. As for the pilots, they were boys, much like my own sons.
Can you talk about historical guilt?
“The Red Baron” is the story of young German guys who foolishly and naively went into war. They were the same as their British, French, etc. counterparts. Yet they must continuously feel guilt, retroactively, when in fact everyone who participated in The Great War was guilty. I felt it was right to tell the German story.
That was very brave of you, to take on such a controversial subject in front of the whole world. It was also an important thing to do if we are to move on.
Thank you, Amy. I feel that in order to move forward it’s imperative that we always look back and understand war from its very human perspective.
Have your boys shown any interest in filmmaking?
(Laughs) No. My older son is studying Neuroscience in Scotland, and the younger one just finished High School. We’ll see…
Thank you for this wonderful conversation. I look forward to your next film.
Thank you, Amy. Thank you so much!