Sunday, April 15, 2012

Hold Me, Jack, I’m Heiling: The Nazis’ Titanic Flop

This past Sunday marked the 100th anniversary of the RMS Titanic’s sinking. With this macabre anniversary came a resurgence of “Titanic Mania”, which gripped the world when its ruins were found in the mid-1980’s, and again in the late 1990’s when James Cameron’s film became a worldwide box office sensation.

The History Channel, more specifically their sister station H2, had a unique way of commemorating this tragedy’s centennial. They had me at “Nazi Titanic”.

The one-hour documentary that followed was about the 1943 German film retelling of Titanic’s sinking. This being a project personally supervised by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, it was at once micromanaged and extravagant. The truth is massaged to say the least, with real life White Star Line chairman Bruce Ismay being shown as extremely greedy, even in the context of the greedy Englishmen and Americans (as they are portrayed) that get their comeuppance as the ship sinks. In addition, throughout the movie Sir Ismay is addressed as “Herr President”, which might be an additional dig on the West, specifically America. Needless to say, the (fictional) German officer saves the day, so much as a day when 1,500 lives are lost can be saved.

I watched the actual movie afterwards, and it was interesting, if also appalling. It has many elements of later disaster films, such as the sole man warning of impending doom, and the focus on several passengers, not unlike Grand Hotel. At 85 minutes, Titanic is less than half as long as James Cameron’s epic. This version of Titanic was banned in Germany as the Allies were clearly winning World War II by this time, although it was shown in occupied Europe. Ironically, the British Titanic film A Night To Remember used scenes from this movie to show the ship afloat.

While Cameron took risks in making what was at the time the most expensive American film ever made, he did not have to deal with the pressures director Herbert Selpin had. Selpin had directed Nazi propaganda films before but by this time was upset with the German Navy’s “technical advisors” who allegedly molested the actresses. Selpin did not live to see the film completed, as he was jailed for insubordination against Goebbels, having been ratted out by his close friend and co-screenwriter. Selpin’s death by hanging in jail was ruled a “suicide”.

When watching the “Nazi Titanic” special, the narrator hinted that the ship used in the movie was involved in an even greater tragedy than the actual Titanic sinking. I rolled my eyes until they spoke of the SS Cap Arcona, which by the last days of WWII was full of concentration camp prisoners. Under orders from Berlin, the prison ship, which was deliberately dressed to look like a warship, was left out in the open with at least two other ships to attract Allied bombers. When RAF planes finally destroyed them, only 350 of the Cap Arcona’s more than 5,000 prisoners survived.

There is no way to ultimately separate the Nazi version of Titanic from the heinous activities and policies of Nazi Germany. While the story and action were interesting at times, it was far more interesting to learn about the real-life struggles involved with this movie. As a flop, Titanic was insult to injury for a reeling Third Reich. As a film and a metaphor, it is a testament to the hubris, the nearsightedness and evil of the Nazi regime.

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