Anybody with even the most glancing acquaintance with 20th-century history will know that Germany was “a bit busy” in 1943. In January of that year, the entire German workforce had been mobilised for “total war”, meaning that all males aged 16-65, and all women of 17-50 were registered for participation in the war effort. It was also the year when the Warsaw and Krakow ghettos were liquidated, continuing the ongoing project to exterminate European Jews, which was also rounding up victims from Austria and Northern Italy by the end of the year. Hundreds of thousands of people are experimented upon and put to death in concentration camps, while Germany battles the Soviet Union from the East, British naval fleets in the Atlantic, and an array of foes in North Africa. It might therefore be a surprise to find that they had the time to produce a big-budget film about the sinking of the Titanic.
[Click below for a slideshow of images from the film.]Vodpod videos no longer available.
At the start of the film, we see that shares in White Star Line have been dropping, and they’ve just built the largest, most luxurious ship in the world. The film quickly establishes WSL’s managing director Joseph Bruce Ismay as a ruthless, arrogant operator who will manipulate the maiden voyage of the Titanic to raise the company’s stock and make a bigger name for himself. What follows is a relentless piece of character assassination. He urges the ship to dangerous speeds, offering rewards for keeping the engines running at full capacity. He asks shareholders for their company affiliation before deciding whether or not they’re worth speaking to. Forgetting to luxuriate in their luxury liner, he and his cronies treat the ship not as a container of people, but a bargaining chip for their own futures. The share price of WSL becomes a barometer of the owners’ hubristic ignorance. The Titanic, which sank 98 years ago today, has always been used as a metaphor for the blissful arrogance of the machine age, here it is more specifically focused on the venality of British businessmen, caring little for the lives of the people caught in the middle of their profiteering shenanigans.
So, who will resist this reckless disrespect for the sanctity of life? Who has the foresight (and knowledge of maritime propriety) to read the signs and portents to predict that the attempt to cross the Atlantic in record time would end badly? Stand up, Petersen, the young, handsome and blonde German 1st Officer, who never misses an opportunity to assert the letter of seafaring etiquette and law. Always honourable, his bravery and defiance in the face of Ismay’s self-serving endangerment of good folk stands as a shining example of how to resist the demands of the powerful, or at least to say “I told you so” when it all ends in disaster. There’s only one problem with this historical detail – Petersen never existed. He’s just a fabrication to emphasise the film’s central thesis that the sinking of the Titanic is “an eternal condemnation of England’s quest for profit”.
As with James Cameron’s more famous film, there are other dramatic licenses taken, but it’s surprising how many of them are familiar from most other tellings of the story. There’s the couple who almost wordlessly hang on to their dignity as the ship goes down, and everyone else descends into selfish panic; another couple is formed amongst the ship’s staff – the tenacity of affection aboard a class-stratified, collapsing societal microcosm has proven irresistible to dramatists of the Titanic disaster. The flooded ballroom is also a perennial indicator of the folly of the enterprise, decadent entertainment laid waste by the inrush of nature:
Aside from the symbolic significance of human artifice trashed by aquatic force, these scenes tend to exert a different kind of power – the ability of the films’ makers (and by extension its Third Reich sponsors) to conjure the necessary resources and then destroy them. As far as catastrophic waste during WWII goes, it’s a pretty minor offence, but it’s an extremely composed, carefully crafted film that only occasionally shows the histrionics of its propagandist purpose. In fact, though, Goebbels ended up concluding that the film was inappropriate for German audiences, showing as it did the terrifyingly inevitable wipe-out of a panicking crowd. It was only shown in foreign territories until after the War, but even in 1950 the Allies were preventing its screening in German because of the anti-British sentiment it contained. When director Herbert Selpin complained about the writer, Walter Zerlett‑Olfenius and the onset antics of the SS, he was reported to Goebbels, who sent the Gestapo to arrest him. Goebbels questioned Selpin personally, and later the same day, the director was found hanged in his cell. We will probably never know for sure how “assisted” this apparent suicide was.
The scenes of the ship’s sinking were shot aboard the Cap Arcona, a luxury liner that met its own catastrophic end – the SS were using it to evacuate prisoners from Neuengamme concentration camp when it was bombed and sunk in the Baltic by the RAF, who were oblivious to its function as a prison vessel, just four days before Germany’s unconditional surrender (and four days after Hitler’s suicide). Some special effects shots were re-used in the later Titanic movies, including the finest of all, A Night to Remember (1958), as is demonstrated on NZPete’s spectacular blog about matte-painting and other old-school special effects:
Lead actress Sybille Schmitz failed to generate much of an acting career and fell into periods of depression, suicide attempts and drug abuse until her fatal overdose in 1955. Her story inspired Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Veronika Voss (1982):
Titanic showed her at her glamorous peak, but retrospectively her presence compounds the deathly impression of a film marked by its historical interest rather than its dramatic achievements,an uncomfortable reminder of a regime that mastered spectacle in the illusion of stability that tried to conceal the imminence of oblivion.
- Read Jared Poley’s fascinating analysis of the film.
- Learn more about the Cap Arcona.
- Find out more about RMS Titanic.