Titanic (1943) Starring: Ernst.F. Fürbringer, Kirsten Heiberg, Karl Schönböck, Sybille Schmitz, Otto Wernicke, Hans Nielsen. Directed by Werner Klinger, Herbert Selpin. Produced by Willy Reiber. Screenplay by Herbert Selpin, Walter Zerlett-Olfenius. Run Time: 85 minutes. Germany Black and White Drama, Historical, German Propaganda
So the title seems right, but the year seems wrong. It might surprise some, but James Cameron’s film was not the first depiction of the sinking of that ocean liner on its maiden voyage. But while Cameron made his movie to make money, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels commissioned the German’s movie to discredit the English and the Americans, blaming the tragedy on English capitalist greed, rather than human judgment.
|Bruce Ismay (E.F. Furbringer), Captain Smith (Otto Wernicke) and First |
Officer Petersen (Hans Nielsen) discuss the running of the Titanic.
This film shares more than just a title with Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster. Like the latter film, this also tells the story of the Titanic sinking in 1912, mixing both real life people with fictional characters. Chief among these additions is German First Officer Herr Petersen (Hans Nielsen). No surprise, but the German officer is the hero of this picture. It is Petersen who is concerned about the ship’s speed and begs the rich owner Sir Bruce Ismay (E.F. Fürbringer) to slow the liner down.
|First class was shown to be opulent, but its passengers as cowards.|
But Ismay is driven by the stock market. Because of the ship’s cost overruns, the stock price for White Star Line has plummeted. And this, for Ismay and the board of the White Star Line, is a good thing. They want to drive the stock price down, even selling their own shares, so that they can swoop in and buy back the stock at bargain basement prices. They plan to buy the stock back just before announcing that the Titanic had set a speed record for an Atlantic crossing, a feat they’re convinced will drive the stock price to new heights. Ismay, who is onboard the maiden voyage, promises Captain Edward J. Smith (Otto Wernicke) a $5000 bonus for arriving on time and an extra $1000 for every hour he’s early. Smith, feeling trapped by the confrontational president of the company he works for, has no choice but to comply with Ismay’s orders.
|The Germans from steerage prove to be courageous, what a surprise!|
However, when it is apparent that the boat is sinking, Ismay demands that Smith get him on a lifeboat. When Smith refuses, Ismay, sounding very much like a Nazi officer, commands his subordinate to make it so. While Smith is ineffectual, Petersen promises to get Ismay on a lifeboat, if only so Ismay can stand in judgment for the tragedy his greed has caused.
|The iceberg rips a hole in the side of the boat, flooding it with sea water.|
Like Ismay, when push comes to shove, the first class passengers, mostly British and American rich, become cowardly, while the Germans in steerage, as well as Petersen and his ex-lover Sigrid Olinsky (Sybille Schmitz), are shown to be courageous. Sybille, a recently impoverished Russian aristocrat, helps Petersen save other passengers before Petersen orders her onto one of the last lifeboats. As an officer, he tells her, he has to stay with the ship. And after Sybille’s gone, Petersen hears the cries for help from a young girl, left to die in her cabin by her British capitalist parents. With the ship about to go under, Petersen leaps from the deck with the girl in his arms. He swims out to a lifeboat, the same one Sybille is on, and the two are pulled aboard.
|Those who managed to get to the lifeboats survive, including Ismay.|
Petersen and Sybille watch as the Titanic finally goes down, albeit in one piece, as opposed to breaking in two as we have been taught is what actually happened.
|In this version, the Titanic sinks in one piece.|
The film ends with the British maritime inquiry into the tragedy, where Petersen appears to be the only witness against Ismay. Despite Petersen’s condemnation of Ismay’s actions, the inquiry finds Captain Smith to be responsible for what happened to the ship under his command. Ismay is cleared and not held responsible. But as the epilogue text points out “the deaths of 1,500 people remain unatoned, forever a testament to Britain’s endless quest for profits.”
Part of the problem with viewing this film as effective propaganda is that I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think Bruce Ismay was a villain. Maybe no previous film about the Titanic sinking, and there had been several by the time this one was made, concentrated as much on the business side of the tragedy. Certainly, Cameron’s version of the story, which is the one everyone is most familiar with, did not make Ismay out to be a hero. He pushes Captain Smith to go faster, though I don’t remember the stock market shenanigans of the White Star board getting as much screen time as it gets in this film. In both films, Ismay, unlike most of the male passengers, survives the sinking by getting aboard a lifeboat reserved for women and children. Certainly, this is not the actions of a heroic man.
Titanic seems like an odd film to make, given Germany’s situation at the point in the war it was being made. The tide was already turning against them, so why spend the time and money on a film like this? The goal of such an endeavor seems to have failure written all over it from the get-go. What could Goebbels have expected would happen after someone watched the film? The Germans weren’t fighting the Allies to end corporate greed.
In the end, Goebbels banned the film from being shown in Germany, since by then the Allies were already bombing almost nightly and the German people weren’t in the mood for a film about mass death and panic. Further, undercutting the film’s effectiveness was that seeing steerage separated from the rest of the passengers by locked gates was similar to the situation going on in Germany’s many concentration camps at the time. Desperation to survive against all odds was nothing new and not escapist fare.
The movie did get released in German-occupied Europe, but at the end of the war was considered lost. Found in 1949, the film was almost immediately banned in most of Western-Europe, but dubbed in Russian by the Soviets and screened across the Eastern-bloc as a sort of “trophy” film from the war.
It’s hard to view a Nazi propaganda film with an attitude better than detached disinterest. Obviously, I don’t condone Nazi atrocities or their goals and aims. But when I heard this film existed, I had to admit I was curious about it. I can’t really comment on the film’s production values without sounding like this is a film I would take seriously. However, footage from this Titanic did find its way into 1958’s A Night to Remember, including two clips of the engine room flooding.
I would say that this is not a film you need to watch. I’m not sure which, if any, Titanic-based films I would really recommend. The ones I’ve seen, and I’ve not seen them all, have their pluses and minuses. While one may have way better special effects (Cameron’s Titanic), another may do a much better job concentrating on the actual events and the people involved. 1514 people perished when the RMS Titanic sank on April 15, 1912. There is no need, in my opinion, to mix in fictional characters with real people in order to show the breadth of the tragedy.