The most frustrating thing about History Channel documentaries is the ongoing usage of a dated format where content is subjugated by visual and aural bombast – fast-flipping layers of dissolving footage, quick transitions, bassy booms, ominous chords – and interviews from an international cast of historians and subjects are reduced to sound-bites.
It’s not a bad thing if the facts are being aimed at newbies to WWII history, but the network should take for granted that its audience is comprised of history fans, ready for information, and wanting slightly longer samplings of testimonies and archival footage which is sometimes available nowhere else.
In spite of the grating style, Nazi Titanic does unfold like a grand mystery where the easy-to-dismiss 1943 film [M] forms a centerpiece to Joseph Goebbels’ almost laughable dream to turn the Nazi-controlled film industry into the gold world standard; it’s also a doom-laden tale of an egotistical director who exploited the supreme power bestowed upon him by Goebbels; and where the film’s shemp Titanic – the German luxury liner Cap Arcona – was later used by the Nazis as a giant bulls eye for Allied planes to hit, and unknowingly blow up concentration camp prisoners, hastily packed inside with flammable liquids and explosives.
Goebbels’ mega-project – reportedly costing $200 million in current dollars – began as a concept in which the world’s worst sea disaster could be reworked into a propaganda drama, pegging evil capitalist Brits responsible for the ship’s sinking, and death of 1500+ passengers. After the success of Carl Peters (1941) and the war film Geheimakte W.B.1 (1942), Herr Minister of Propaganda wanted Herbert Selpin, a capable filmmaker whose background as an editor guaranteed fast-paced action scenes and briskly cut dialogue scenes.
Selpin brought in his friend and Carl Peters screenwriter Walter Zerlett-Olfenius to flesh out the drama with its newly revised facts – pungent distortions designed to instill audience hatred towards the British for their collective hubris, greed, and arrogance, and the exploitation of poor steerage immigrants.
Goebbels was so hungry to beat Hollywood at its own game of big budget extravaganzas and better the Brits’ own wave of propaganda films – such as Went the Day Well? (1942) and In Which We Serve (1942) – that he approved of Selpin’s heady demands, including the construction of an elaborate Titanic model, and redirecting seamen from the war effort, and using the Cap Arcona (drafted and refitted as a troop ship) as a full-scale double of the Titanic. Night shots were filmed at night in spite of Allied air raids, and there were multiple delays which boosted the film’s budget higher than the Nazi coffers could afford.
Titanic was a kind of lunacy where the war chest was being redirected towards a bloated production no one knew would actually be a success, but Goebbels was relying on Selpin to create the needed hit, and Selpin was exploiting his vital position with costly demands, and when the production’s problems became too taxing, Selpin snapped at his supplied soldiers, using words (and attitude) so treasonous that screenwriter Zerlett-Olfenius personally hitched a train to Berlin, and tattle-taled on his boss and best friend. The result: Selpin was questioned by the Gestapo, and eventually arrested, where he stubbornly admitted he had in fact said the words repeated by Zerlett-Olfenius. It was an automatic death sentence, and Selpin was founded hanging in his cell. After his ‘suicide,’ Werner Klingler was brought in to finish the film, and although Titanic was completed, strong images of terrified passengers convinced Goebbels the film would upset Germans who were in the midst of Allied bombing raids, so the film was banned in Germany, but released in territories occupied by the Nazis, premiering in Prague, and later Paris.
Oscar Chan’s doc incorporates fluid dramatic recreations of the film’s production with convincing lookalike actors, and intercuts rare black & white and colour home movies Selpin had taken of himself while filming both Carl Peters and Titanic. It’s amazing the footage actually exists, and the doc also includes rare translations from sections of Goebbels’ diaries – namely, the missing pages previously held in the Russian archives – which reinforce Herr Doktor’s rabid envy of Hollywood’s commercial style, big budget successes, and global economic dominion of cinema screens; and Goebbels anti-Semitism which larded almost every page.
Also interviewed is a former employee who worked in the script department; Friedemann Beyer, author of the biography Der fall Selpin (2011); Wilhelm Lange, author of Cap Arcona; and historians Fritz Maurischat and Wolfgang Jacobsen.
The film’s conclusion switches to the story of the Cap Arcona, which some historians believe was used as a hasty method to burn and drown camp inmates. Guided by an interview with a survivor, the doc’s finale covers the horrible slaughter of camp prisoners as they were trapped in the sinking inferno, and the few who escaped mowed down by Nazi soldiers.
Nazi Titanic is a striking, haunting, and affecting drama, but it’s impact is often hindered by a bombastic style designed to leave viewers on a contrived cliffhanger before every persistent ad break. It might play better on video provided specific stylistic redundancies are trimmed.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan