In 1942, with the war going fairly well for Germany, Joseph Goebbels green-lit a lavish, technically complex account of the sinking of the Titanic, one with a decidedly different viewpoint. All blame falls on Evil British plutocrats, and a decent, ethical German officer is the only competent man on the bridge. Kino’s features a game- changing extra — a superb commentary that explains everything about this crazy picture.
1943 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 85 min. / Street Date October 17, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Sybille Schmitz, Hans Nielsen, Kirsten Heiberg, Ernst Fritz Fürbringer, Karl Schönböck, Charlotte Thiele, Otto Wernicke, Franz Schafheitlin, Sepp Rist, Claude Farell, Theodor Loos.
Cinematography: Friedl Behn-Grund
Film Editor: Friedal Buckow
Visual Effects:< Ernst Kunstmann
Original Music:< Werner Eisbrenner
Written by Herbert Selpin, Walter Zerlett-Olfenius
Produced by Tobis Filmkunst
Directed by Herbert Selpin, Werner Klingler
Everyone loves movies about the sinking of the Titanic, and if you don’t you aren’t taking a sufficiently morbid view of history. These are exactly the tragedies we’re supposed to learn from but never do. The go-to version is still A Night to Remember, but the Negulesco version is very satisfying, the TV movie version is not bad, and the Cameron version has sensational special effects, if you close your eyes and plug your ears against everything else.
And then there’s the tale of Ocean Liner versus Iceberg that most people don’t know, the lavish Nazi production overseen by Josef Goebbels smack in the middle of WW2. It began being shown on TCM around ten-twelve years ago, and I’ve watched at least three times, trying to figure out what it all means. By now those of us familiar with the reasonably accurate A Night to Remember are in a position to wag a finger at these movies for every historical flub or technical mistake. Not that inaccuracies are deal-breakers. Not every error is the equivalent of putting a basement in The Alamo, and outright historical lies are a treasured part of some of our fave Hollywood fare. But we’re told that Adolf Hitler personally visited the set of the 1943 Tobis Filmkunst Titanic . It’s not the kind of movie one would want on a postwar résumé. Actually, the film’s director spoke out of turn and came to a pretty unhappy end. The grievance had nothing to do with ‘artistic differences.’
Assumptions that a Nazi Titanic would display a heavy propaganda spin are soon proved true. The entire voyage, over-publicized as a race to break the Atlantic passage record, is a gambit by arrogant English speculator Sir Bruce Ismay (cruel-looking Ernst Fritz Fürbringer). The wheeler-dealer shores up his shaky investment by suckering other millionaires into investing. Ismay’s chief competitor John Jacob Astor (aristocratic-looking Karl Schönböck) is on board and maneuvering as well. Various other got-rocks capitalists on board are tying up the wireless traffic with their buy & sell orders to New York. Ismay and Astor’s imperious, status conscious wives (Kirsten Heiberg & Charlotte Thiele) are along too. Lady Astor complicates matters, when the aloof Astor believes that she’s slipped a priceless gem to a Cuban lover, Mendoza (Werner Scharf). Captain Smith (Otto Wernicke of “M” and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, but slimmed down considerably) accedes to Ismay’s orders to speed full ahead into iceberg infested waters. The sole officer on board that opposes Ismay’s reckless command is 1st Officer Petersen (Hans Nielsen), a German. Petersen importunes a passenger the countess Sigrid Olinsky (top-billed Sybille Schmitz) to intervene. Actually, Sigrid has her own problems, as she’s just found out that she’s lost her fortune. Nobody is prepared when the ship strikes an iceberg, and even Petersen must avoid panic by telling the passengers that there’s no immediate danger. In spite of their blatant disregard for human life the various tycoons must also face hard facts: the ship will sink in a couple of hours, the water’s freezing, and the lifeboats can save barely a third of the 2,000 + people on board.
This lavishly produced Titanic can boast a highly efficient screenplay and good direction by Herbert Selpin. We meet the wealthy connivers and their haughty women, see the dedicated crew at work, and also take a look at what’s happening in steerage. Goebbels didn’t overload wartime movies with Nazi propaganda. Besides fancying himself a Berlin Selznick, Goebbels realized that the German public badly needed entertainment to take their minds off the war. Yet the villains are English money-manipulators, leading astray the good working men of the ship’s crew. [This sentiment is identical in earlier Nazi-era fantasies. The 1934 Gold invents an English stock market manipulator, who callously exploits Scottish workers to build a fantastic alchemy machine.]
The movie contrasts the wealthy feasting in First Class while the immigrants in steerage are served bowls of soup. Events with the poor folk are limited to a lusty gypsy (?) dance that ends with two friends fighting over the dancer. The friend who pulls a knife is taken to the lockup downstairs, along with Mendoza, who has been revealed as a thief, absolving Lady Astor of infidelity. The dancer wears a revealing top for her performance. In a detail I don’t fully understand, the more couth of the friends blatantly gropes her while helping her on with her jacket-top. Was this supposed to reflect lower-class manners?
The real sympathy is reserved for a dazzlingly attractive young working couple. The humble manicurist Hedi (Claude Farell) has perfect Teutonic looks; the rosy-cheeked violinist Jan (Sepp Rist) comes off as a German Dick Powell. They meet cute in a hallway, exchange toothy smiles and meet again near the ship’s tennis court. We’re told that this is inaccurate: the Titanic had a tennis court the same way The Alamo had a basement.
The movie makes no clear propaganda statement about those poor folk in steerage. They march upstairs to a ballroom to ask why the ship’s engines have stopped, but it isn’t as if we’re meant to be on their side. The last time we see the immigrants before the emergency, the stewards are segregating them by sex. The similarity of this to what was done in concentration camps has been noted, but in the context of this story the idea simply seems to more efficiently evacuate women and children first. A constant in all versions of the sinking is here: a loving elderly couple that don’t want to be separated.
Although a bit of violence breaks out, most passengers follow instructions. Petersen has to use violence just once. Heroine Sigrid dons Petersen’s coat to help hurry the women into lifeboats, a detail that brings to mind another knee-jerk idea we were taught about Germans: just wearing a uniform coat gives one authority.
Meanwhile, the Evil Ismay tries to extort financial support from John Jacob Astor, in a ‘your money for your life’ bargain. This is working perfectly until a lackey announces that there are no longer lifeboat spots for anybody. Astor takes it like a man, but Ismay will do anything to save his skin.
Much of the movie was filmed on a real ship, which helps the overall realism. The physical effects are very good as well. Miniatures and opticals have some weaknesses, but a number of the better effects shots found their way into A Night to Remember. The last time we see the warm-hearted wireless operator, he’s setting free a caged canary. That’s a nice gesture, but a little hollow. It’s &%#(@ freezing out there, the little canary has spent his whole life caged, and he’s not going to find any birdseed in the 400 miles he must fly to reach land.
This version has no drawn-out scenes of Brit sailors, not even the captain, bravely awaiting a soggy doom. Our hero Petersen remains a live hero by saving a small girl left behind. Petersen’s nobility has limits — he doesn’t refuse to climb into a lifeboat, coincidentally the one where awaits the warm and admiring Sigrid Olinsky.
This version of the familiar story is exciting, well made and with its Nazi context is of course a fascinating spectacle to behold. Information on the film online is spotty, so I welcomed the audio commentary promised for the disc.
The Kino Classics Blu-ray of Titanic (1943) is in the best shape I’ve seen it, which is very good considering its insane history of distribution. There are a few missing frames here and there, and scratches around reel breaks, etc. Some rather good suspense montages come across perfectly, and the special effects are not diminished.
The audio is also unusually clear for a film with this kind of pedigree and spotty distribution history.
Even if you’ve seen a cablecast on TCM, the excellent audio commentary is a major reason to watch Kino’s disc. Author Gaylyn Studlar co-wrote a book about James Cameron’s version and she has all the facts on the historic event to compare to the Nazi filmmakers’ version. It’s interesting to find out what’s accurate and what’s not, and how the Nazi screenwriter characterized the sinking of the ship as an example of English perfidy, even though American money interests were so strongly represented. She has the story behind the real Astor and Ismay, and their wives. Astor married a teenager, but in the movie his wife is a sophisticated adult. The most odious villainy is reserved for the near-diabolical plutocrat Bruce Ismay. The commentary compares this German Titanic to MGM’s Grand Hotel, distributing scandals and drama among several attractive couples.
Ms. Studlar is a pleasant listen as she covers the backgrounds and eventual fates of the mostly unfamiliar filmmakers. Denounced by the film’s fanatic screenwriter Walter Zerlett-Olfenius for ‘disparaging remarks about the Nazi war effort, the German army, and the Iron Cross,’ director Herbert Selpin was arrested by the Gestapo. He died in their custody, a suspicious suicide, before the film was completed in 1942. We also learn that after the war, the head of Tobis Film was captured and executed by the Russians.
Gaylyn Studlar also has good bios on some of the actors. The Norwegian film star Kristin Heiberg faced obvious obstacles when she returned home at the end of the war. Even more interesting are Studlar’s informed ideas about the expensive film’s weird distribution history. Titanic ’43 was never shown in Germany during wartime, although it was shown in occupied territories. She offers several reasons for this, the most compelling was that by the time the film was finished, bombs were about to fall on Berlin and other cities. It wasn’t a good time for a show about panic on a sinking ship.
When finally distributed in Germany in 1950 some scenes were dropped including an entire coda condemning English greed for the tragedy. We’re lucky that the film was eventually reconstituted. Ms. Studlar isn’t sure the film is entirely restored. In one suspect scene, a character suddenly appears on deck with a new warm coat, and we don’t know its source.
The commentary touches on too many interesting angles to fully cover. Ms. Studlar points out that English filmmakers waited 45 years to make a movie about the Titanic precisely because it put the English in a bad light. James Cameron seems to have liked a particular plot complication in this German version enough to borrow it. Not only is there a jewel theft, the thief and one of the friends from steerage are locked up in the ship’s one-room jail, and forgotten. An emergency fire axe is used to free them in the nick of time, which of course is exactly what happens in the 1997 Titanic. I guess even Nazi fanatic screenwriters come up with occasional good story ideas.
An original trailer (!) is present, which doesn’t give away the film’s origin in any overt manner. Also present are two films from 1912 or thereabouts. For a straight newsreel about the Titanic, I’m sad to say that shots taken on board don’t reveal anybody rearranging deck chairs! A White Star Line silent promotional film touts the luxuries of the Olympic, the Titanic’s sister ship.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Very Good ++ Plus Plus
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Gaylyn Studlar; original 1912 newsreel, cruise line promo tour of sister ship Olympic, original 1943 trailer.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 1, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson