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A bizarre blending of art and politics


Before James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster Titanic, the Hollywood version of Titanic of 1953, the 1958 British film A Night to Remember, and the 1997 Broadway musical Titanic, there was a Nazi propaganda film Titanic made during World War II in Berlin by Tobis Productions for UFA. Production begun in 1942, this production nearly sank as decisively as the doomed ocean liner.

In a bizarre blending of art and politics, the 1912 Titanic disaster was turned by German film makers, working under the watchful eye of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph "We will decide who is Jewish!" Goebbels, into a drama filled with attacks on British society, some fictitious German crew members, and an anti-capitalism theme.

The film was shot on board the Cap Arcona, a German passenger cruise ship which itself was sunk in the last weeks of World War II ironically enough by the British while transporting liberated prisoners from concentration camps with a heavy loss of life. The scenes with the lifeboats were filmed on the Baltic Sea and some of the interior scenes were shot in Tobis Studios.

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. The films director Herbert Selpin, infuriated with the slow second-unit shooting in the port of Gdynia, was overheard making remarks damning the Wehrmacht (German Army of WWII). Reported to the Gestapo, Selpin was arrested on Goebbels orders on charges of treason & found hanging in his cell the next day. The unfinished film, the production of which spiraled wildly out control, was in the end completed by Werner Klingler.

The movie opens with a proclamation to the White Star Line stock holders that their stocks are currently falling. The president of White Star Line promises to reveal a secret during the maiden voyage of the Titanic that will change the fate of the stocks. He alone knows that the ship can break the world record in speed and that, he thinks, will raise the stock value. He and the board of the White Star Line plan to lower the stocks by selling even their own stocks in order to buy them back at a lower price. They plan to buy them back just before the news about the record speed of the ship will be published to the press. The issue of capitalism and the stock market plays a dominant role throughout the movie. The hero of the film is played by the fictional German First Officer Peterson on the ill-fated voyage of the British ocean liner RMS Titanic in 1912. He begs the ship's rich and snobbish owners to slow down the ship's speed, but they refuse and the Titanic hits an iceberg and sinks. The rich are shown as sleazy cowards, while Officer Peterson and a handful of German passengers in steerage are shown as brave and kind. Peterson manages to rescue many passengers, convince his lover to get into a lifeboat (in a scene which was famously echoed in the 1997 film) and saves a young girl, who was obviously left to die in her cabin by an uncaring, callous British capitalist mother. The film makes the allegory of the Titanic's loss specifically about British avarice rather than, as most Titanic retellings do, about general human arrogance and presumption. This film does include all the "classic" trappings of a Titanic film. The numerous subplots include greed, arrogance, star-crossed lovers, young love, old flames meeting again on the doomed ship and has the typical melodramatic scene where a wife refuses to leave her husband on the doomed liner.

The premiere was supposed to be in early 1943, but the theatre that housed the print was bombed the night before the big event. After extensive cutting,the film went on to have a lacklustre premiere in Paris around Christmas of that same year and a few army installations, 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. Titanic was re-discovered in 1949, but was quickly banned in most western and capitalist countries. However, it was a huge success with Soviet audiences who greatly related to the film's severe anti-capitalist statement. After the fifties, the film went back into obscurity, sometimes showing on German television. But in 1992, a censored, low quality VHS copy, was released in Germany. This version deleted the strongest propaganda scenes, which immensely watered down its controversial content. Finally, in 2005, Titanic was completely restored and, for the first time, the uncensored version was released.

The 1943 film actually had very good special effects for the time, so much so that it was alleged that some of them were spliced into the 1958 film A Night to Remember. This "fact," however, is greatly overstated. The only shots used by the 1958 film are four brief inserts. Two shots are of the ship sailing in calm waters during the day -- a very noticeable goof, since the model used in the 1943 version is very different from the one used in 1958. The other two shots were brief clips of a flooding walkway in the engine room. No shots of the actual sinking were used in A Night to Remember.

In some respects the callousness & greed of the British (more accurately White Star Line who owned RMS Titanic) portrayed in the film wasn’t completely out of line. In real life the bereaved families of crew members who died while serving aboard RMS Titanic most of whom were poor & working class received a bill from White Star Line for unpaid uniforms costing between £4 & 10 shillings to £5, a small sum today but in 1912 this was roughly equal to £600 in today’s money.

In some respects the callousness & greed of the British (more accurately White Star Line) portrayed in the film wasn’t completely out of line. In real life the bereaved families of crew members who died while serving aboard RMS Titanic most of whom were poor & working class received a bill from White Star Line for unpaid uniforms costing between £4 & 10 shillings to £5, a small sum today but in 1912 this was roughly equal to £600 in today’s money.

Incredibly this film can be seen on you tube in its entirety albeit broken up into 9 parts of approx 9 minutes each in the original German with no English language subtitles. If you can speak German you are in for a treat, if you can’t, as they say in German Pesch gehabt (tough luck)! The link is
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ffyn8C3XDLc

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Thanks for this extensive background about the film -- I'm sitting here watching it now on German TV. I had no idea it even existed.

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[deleted]

I didn't found much "Propaganda" in this movie, except the closing sentence which was laughable. It made me really laugh. But besides that, this film and a night to remember are basically the basis for James Cameron's Titanic as he copied shots 1:1 from both these movies. Yes, it's a movie made by Nazis but it isn't really a propaganda movie since it's much like James Camerons version. I can only speak of the restored version. I guess the original destroyed version had more Propaganda in it.

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