“This film depicts the sole voyage of the luxury liner Titanic whose fate was to hold the world in suspense for months.” --- Prologue
As Britain and Nazi Germany were in the midst of WWII, this historical abomination was produced by the Nazis as an easy-to-digest screed to vilify Britain (and quietly America) as solely responsible for the deaths of 1600+ people.
The script gets one thing right – after striking an iceberg, the Titanic sunk – but the facts and tone are so absurd, the film quickly becomes a propaganda cartoon. As written by ardent Nazi scribe Walter Zerlett-Olfenius, and fact-filtered through Joseph Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda machine, the drama is also comprised of several dramatic strands that are surprisingly typical of modern disaster films: Mankind’s biggest and best is erected and open for business; two egos clash for dominance with grievous results; middling marriages are further stressed; and young romance blossoms and is threatened by the story’s penultimate catastrophe.
At the core of Goebbels’ anti-Brit sermon is the corrupting evil of capitalist greed: Sir Bruce Ismay (played by Ernst Fritz Furbringer, bedecked with aerodynamic hair) is determined to prevent the stock prices of the White Star line from plummeting, so he orders the Titanic to be ready for a fast trip across the Atlantic. The reasoning: if she breaks speed records and wins the coveted Blue Ribbon, the company will be sound, and everyone will get a financial windfall for sticking with White Star stock. Foiling Ismay’s plan is evil John Jacob Astor (Karl Schonbock), a kind of Oil Can Harrry who’s determined to erode the company’s stock prices and eventually acquire a majority share so he can have White Star all for himself.
Once on board, the two egotists quietly maneuver behind the scenes to shore up their positions: Ismay orders Captain Edward Smith (Kolberg’s blubbering Otto Wernicke) to maintain top speed, offering cash bonuses for beating time and breaking records, while Astor attempts to snap up stock from onboard investors. The wire room is used to get stock updates and send buy / sell requests by various greedy investors, and as Ismay realizes the stock keeps dipping lower, he courts Balkan Baroness Sigrid Olinsky (Sybille Schmitz) in the hope of getting a new investor in case his own net worth goes down utterly the drain.
Ismay’s wife is well accustomed to her husband’s philandering, using ‘business’ as an excuse for pleasure, and she steps aside when he chases Sigrid, wining & dining the striking beauty bedecked with her own mountain of sloping hair, circa 1942. Astor’s wife is similarly affected by her husband, whose main mistress is Money (this, in fact, he expresses openly), and to compensate for the lack of love, she teases (and presumably has an affair) with a wealthy suitor after some small share of the Astor fortune.
Amid this bad love are newfound luv birds Jan (S.O.S. Iceberg’s Sepp Rist) and happy little Heidi (Monika Burg), a lowly musician and the ship’s new manicurist, respectively, who literally bump into each other in a hallway, arrange a date, fall head over heels in luv, and eventually struggle to stay together as the ship sinks to the bottom of the sea.
Central to all this chaos is bullshit 1st Officer Petersen, a non-existent German officer assigned at the last minute to the Titanic when Captain Smith’s main man was unable to fulfill his duties. Peterson (Ich klage an’s Hans Nielsen) had previously served with Smith, which perhaps explains why the Captain tolerates what amounts to outright insubordination and disrespect, and is never, ever reprimanded. Petersen whines, complains, sermonizes, berates, insults, and slanders his superiors and company president Ismay with total impunity, and for the film’s first half he’s portrayed as wrongfully dismissed crusader; in essence, Goebbels’ reasoning is had the greedy Brits listened to the sober German, the entire tragedy would’ve been prevented.
It’s fascinating to watch the character’s outrageous behaviour until the nature of the disaster film mandates he actually does something: once the ship hits the iceberg, besides a few obvious ‘I told you so’ moments, the odiously sanctimonious Petersen reigns himself in and helps out in evacuating the ship, even saving Sigrid with whom he’d had an affair in Cairo, and now expresses his devotion.
Also dramatized in facile vignettes are the steerage (third class) passengers who live in a big dorm room, dance to gypsy music, and are filled with the homespun cheer we tend to presume immigrants genetically possess prior to being exposed to big American cities. To spice up their drama, we have a gypsy temptress who teases two best buddies, transforming them into knife-wielding rivals; and an older couple whose marriage is stressed by the great risk they’re taking, travelling to New York, and more immediately, being stuck watching a lurid gypsy dance.
Tied to the Nazis’ feigned socialist roots is an absurd moment where the entire steerage clan leaves their quarters, enter the grand ballroom, and unaware of the ship’s lethal collision, demand (!) the Captain explain why the ship’s engines are still. Never mind steerage passengers were physically barred from wandering into the first class areas; Goebbels’ drama has them evoking the will of the people, even though said people are still unaware they’re being treated as third class cattle, cooped up in the ship’s sweaty underbelly. When the ship begins to sink, they evacuate with surprising ease, given first class stairwells and hallways were verboten to for the lower classes.
A minor storyline has a Cuban thief, masquerading as a Count, being arrested with one of the gypsy dancer’s boyfriends, and in a scene oddly reminiscent of Jack’s near-drowning in the ship’s makeshift ‘jail’ in James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), the best friend manages to find his incarcerated buddy from his pleas for help, and breaks both him and the Cuban free from a locked cabin just as the water is flooding the deck.
As an epic, Titanic is mildly successful in delivering a fast-paced, almost classical disaster scenario that happens to espouse the ersatz socialist rants of the Nazis with a particular hate-on for the Brits, but there’s no effort to make a definitive or memorable docu-drama. The ship used for the practical shots – the Cap Arcona - looks a little like the Titanic, but so few shots of the ship’s exterior were taken that any sense of her might were reliant on rather weak models. Given the film cost almost $200 million in current dollars, it’s frankly bizarre how little we actually see of the ship – much less than Atlantic, the creaky 1929 sound drama of the Titanic disaster.
The women’s costumes feel more 1942 than 1912, and most amusingly, the Titanic’s “band” is really a big German orchestra that plays Nazi-favoured march music to soothe passengers anxious to get on the lifeboats. There are no popular period songs, and Werner Eisbrenner’s score is all bluster and bombast, lacking any subtlety, and perfectly representative of the hard, melodramatic, Germanic musical endemic to Third Reich dramas.
Prior to Titanic, director Herbert Selpin had made several high-profile films - Carl Peters (1941) being perhaps his best-known - and the former editor seemed a natural to handle a historical epic, but apparently his criticisms of women-hungry German marines and Goebbels’ meddling in the script was sufficiently aggravating to mandate arrest by the Gestapo during filming, and he was reportedly found hanging in his cell a day later – a death later ruled in a postwar court as murder.
The film was completed by Wener Klinger, and reportedly premiered in Paris (other sources cite Prague); after all the effort and human sacrifice, Goebbels banned the film due to the uneasy similarity between scenes showing panicked passengers onscreen, and everyday Germans being stressed from massive Allied bombings. After the war, Titanic was banned as Nazi propaganda, and although it did eventually emerge on TV and video, the film wasn’t seen uncut with its restored propaganda screeds until Kino’s DVD release.
Sleeved in the film’s striking poster art, Kino’s DVD sports an uncut print, but the single layer transfer is a lackluster PAL-NTSC conversion with soft focus and visible ghosting from heavy digital noise reduction, and there’s visible signal noise whenever the screen goes to full black (such as in between any credit scenes and fadeouts).
Extras include a vintage stills gallery and English translation of the publicity book hype, plus the original German teaser trailer (presented without English subtitles) which alerted patrons to watch for the film’s never-to-happen engagement at German cinemas.
Also of note is a hasty ‘rescue’ newsreel cobbled together from footage of the Titanic’s sister ship the Olympic, featuring badly looped & duplicated shots of Captain Smith on her deck, the lifeboats, and film of rescue ship the Carpathia, with plenty of smiling and camera-hamming sailors milling in front of the static camera.
More interesting is a vintage White Star promo film with shots of the Olympic’s interior luxuries, and a cast of actors playing regal passengers enjoying the comforts of the exercise, dining, smoking and writing rooms, and cabins. Both silent shorts feature new piano scores by Donald Sosin.
In 2012, a documentary titled Nazi Titanic [M] investigated the making of the film and the tragic history of the Cap Arcona, and a 2012 National Post article by Brian Hawkins, “Titanic’s Last Victim,” provides some insight into the tragic demise of director Selpin, and the film’s troubled history.
“The deaths of 1,500 people remain unatoned for… an eternal condemnation of England’s quest for profit.” --- Epilogue
If Titanic was intended to stir up bitter resentment (if not some potent dislike) towards the Brits, the expensive project failed when Goebbels restricted the film’s first run to occupied territories instead of Germany.
His next brainstorm for an affecting epic was Kolberg [M] (1945), meant to symbolize the power a people can muster when the odds at protecting a town are at their lowest. Unfortunately for Herr Doktor, Kolberg (which cost a reported $500 million in current dollars) never really premiered due to the Nazis being too busy with their losing war (and there being few functional cinemas), so Goebbels’ final effort to maintain a personal dialogue with audiences was Das leben geht weiter / Life Goes On [M] (1945), a ‘realist’ drama in which Germans are shown struggling after a loss. The film was never completed, but like the prior films, the surviving facts reveals the epic lengths Goebbels went to shape the populace, but one suspects there probably would’ve been enough German Titanic fans and film connoisseurs who would’ve smelled the untruths and propagandistic nonsense within his slick epic.
Truer aspects of the saga and fictional variations of the Titanic have appeared many times in film and TV movies, including the German In Nacht und Eis (1912), the Danish Atlantis (1913), the multi-lingual sound release Atlantic (1929), the Nazi Titanic (1943), the American soap opera / disaster Titanic [M] (1953), the British A Night to Remember (1958), the ABC TV movie S.O.S. Titanic (1979), Clive Cussler’s Raise the Titanic [M] (1980), the CBS TV mini-series Titanic (1996), James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), the TV movie Saving the Titanic [M] (2011), the TV mini-series Titanic (2012), and (so far) the 12-part series (!) Titanic: Blood and Steel (2012).
Among the numerous documentaries about the wreck of the Titanic, the most notable include National Geographic’s Secrets of the Titanic (1986), the original 107 minute IMAX film Titanica (1995), and James Cameron’s 3D IMAX epic Ghosts of the Abyss (2003).
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan