The strange tale of the banned Nazi World War II epic Titanic.
- Before James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster Titanic, the Hollywood Titanic of 1953, the 1958 British film A Night to Remember, and the 1997 Broadway musical Titanic – there was the Nazi German film RMS Titanic.
Excellent video on making of the Nazi Titanic.
The Nazi Titanic vs. Cameron’s Titanic
Neither the first nor the best film telling the story of the doomed ocean liner, the 1943 German version is nonetheless fascinating– mainly because of the ways the story and imagery compare to John Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster, and as a study in overt propaganda.
- There’s the obligatory love story, poor immigrants dance below deck, and the band keeps playing “Nearer My God to Thee,” but the real thrust of this version is an accusation of the ruthless capitalists who caused the catastrophe.
- Usually, the tale of the RMS Titanic serves as an object lesson in hubris, but in the Nazi-version, the sin that causes the death of over 1,500 passengers is greed: Sir Bruce Ismay, the owner of the White Star line played by Ernst Fritz Fürbinger, wants to break all records to drive stock prices up while John Jacob Astor (Karl Schönböck) is trying to thwart him so he can take over the company.
The passenger ship used in the filming of Titanic, the SS Cap Arcona, itself sank just three years after filming on May 3, 1945, though the ship sinking in the Baltic Sea was due not to an iceberg but due to the Royal Air Force. A war crime?
- Tragically, the SS Cap Arcona was carrying around 5,500 concentration camp inmates at the time, most of whom died in the attack. They were mainly prisoners who had been held in various concentration camps in Germany, and who were being deported as the Allied invasion drew closer. More people died in this disaster than the roughly 1,500 who died in the actual Titanic sinking in 1912.
The epilogue makes clear that there is no justice for the death caused by the speculating Englishman and his American nemesis. The sympathetic characters display more “German” virtues that must have seemed useful to the Nazis in 1943: honor, duty, obedience.
- Nonetheless, Goebbels wasn’t happy with the film:
- Titanic was the most expensive German production up until that time and endured many production difficulties, including a clash of egos, massive creative differences and general war-time frustrations. All of this resulted in Joseph Goebbels arresting the film’s director, Herbert Selpin, for treason and ordering him to be hanged in his cell the very next day. The unfinished film, the production of which spiraled wildly out of control, was in the end completed by Werner Klingler.
- The premiere was supposed to be in early 1943, but the theatre that housed the answer print was bombed the night before the big event. The film went on to have a lackluster premiere in Paris around Christmas of that same year, but in the end, Goebbels banned it altogether, stating that the German people, at that point going through almost nightly Allied bombing raids, were less than enthusiastic about seeing a film that portrayed mass death and panic.
- A Tobis production begun in 1942, this production nearly sank as decisively as the doomed ocean liner. The film’s director, Herbert Selpin, infuriated with the slow second-unit shooting in the port of Gdynia, was overheard making remarks damning the German army. Reported to the Gestapo, Selpin was arrested and later found hanging in his prison cell, the victim of an arranged “suicide.”
- In April 1943, the film was banned by the Berlin censors for German release because of its terrifying scenes of panic, all too familiar to German civilians undergoing nightly Allied bombing raids. After extensive cutting, Titanic was released in occupied Paris and a few army installations. The film was seen in Germany finally in late 1949, but banned a few months later in the Western sectors (though not in the Soviet zone, because of its unmistakable anti-British-capitalist theme).
The 27,561 gross ton Cap Arcona, named after Cape Arkona on the island of Rügen in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, was launched in 1927.
- It was considered one of the most beautiful ships of the time. It was the largest German ship on the South American run. It carried upper-class travelers and steerage-class emigrants, mostly to South America. In 1940, it was taken over by the Kriegsmarine and used in the Baltic Sea as an accommodation ship. In 1942 it was used as a stand-in for the doomed Titanic in the German film version of the disaster.
Technically, this Titanic is an excellent catastrophe film; its shots of the ship sinking were later used by the 1958 British film without credit.
- Somewhat true to the facts though peppered with fictional good Germans both on and below deck, in steerage the film ends with a trial scene that acquits the White Star Line management, followed by a final slide denouncing England eternal quest for profit. These packed a powerful propaganda punch; cut from the postwar prints, they have been restored for this Kino on Video version.
The Nazi Titanic – Full movie on YouTube.
A fascinating film no matter how you look at it. The legend is that it was instigated by Joseph Goebbels as one of his supreme efforts in anti-British propaganda. But when all was said and done, it backfired big time. The director of the film, Herbert Selpin, was murdered by the Nazis for crafting what seems today a thinly-veiled indictment of the Nazi government, and this “Titanic” ended up being banned from all German theaters until years after the war.
- And then, the British banned it again (they never did like being reminded of the disaster) for its supposed anti-British content, while at the same time it was being shown with no problem in those parts of Germany occupied by the Soviet Union. Oddly enough, they had no problem with the film’s anti-Capitalist tone.
- In any event, this “Titanic” remains one of film history’s most fascinating takes on the famous legend — a roughly equal mixture of historical fact, outrageous legend, and outright lies. Still, it’s better than some of Hollywood’s films on the same subject, and you don’t have to look far to see where James Cameron cribbed a lot of the ideas for his own over praised epic.
- There are also some very impressive (for the time) special effects, many of which were used in what is still the best Titanic film, 1958’s “A Night to Remember,” along with some of the most moving sequences to appear in any film about the tragedy (my favorite is the moment when wireless operator Phillips releases his pet canary into the night sky).
- My highest praise to Kino video for making this important historical film available in a proper DVD release with English subtitles. It’s a must for both the film and Titanic buffs out there who think that they’ve seen it all.