Sunday, April 15, 2012

Titanic (UFA, 1943)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Titanic, a 1943 German movie with a fascinating history that I ordered on DVD not long ago from Kino Home Video. The disc didn’t come with any documentation other than what was on the outside liner — the booklet is merely a catalog — and Kino’s own Web site had no more information on the film than what was published on the liner, but I found a cast list and some interesting trivia about it on The film was written by Herbert Selpin and Walter Zerlett-Olfenius and Selpin was set to direct it as well, but when he started complaining about delays in the second-unit shooting at the Polish port city of Gdynia, according to the Kino notes he “was overheard making remarks damning the German army. Reported to the Gestapo, Selpin was arrested and later found hanging in his prison cell, the victim of an arranged ‘suicide.’” Another director, Werner Klingler, was assigned to finish the film and did so, but after the film was finally completed the censors at Joseph Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda decided not to allow the film to be shown in Germany. Kino’s notes explain this was “because of its terrifying scenes of panic, all too familiar to German citizens undergoing nightly bombing raids,” though I suspect other factors were operative as well — more on that later.

In any case, before the end of the war the 1943 Titanic was only seen in occupied Paris and at some army bases, and while it was finally released in Germany in 1949 it was quickly banned in the Western occupation zones, though it remained in circulation in what eventually became East Germany. The film contained a two-minute postlude after the Titanic finally sinks that shows the inquiry before the Maritime Board which acquitted the White Star Line and its president, J. Bruce Ismay, of charges of negligence (though apparently private personal-injury attorneys were able to win damages of over $1.3 million from the company, which as I recall the history led to its financial collapse in 1920 and absorption by Cunard — one idiotic Republican politician stated in 1997, when the popularity of James Cameron’s Titanic film was at its height, that it was a good thing there were no personal-injury lawyers at the time the Titanic sank because then there would been lawsuits for years afterwards; at the time there were personal-injury lawyers and they did file lawsuits that tied up the courts for years afterwards — and given such idiotic decisions on the part of the line as including only enough lifeboats for one-third of the passengers and turning off the ship’s radio after dark, there were plenty of indications of negligence for personal-injury lawyers to exploit: the Titanic didn’t just happen to run into that iceberg; there were plenty of things that could have been done to avoid it that weren’t!) — making this the only non-documentary Titanic film I’ve seen that acknowledged any of the post-wreck legal history; there’s also a closing credit that blames the sinking on British capitalism.

What was most surprising about this film was not only that the story took an anti-capitalist as well as anti-British slant — commenting on La Habañera, which he’d made six years earlier before leaving Germany, Douglas Sirk told Jon Halliday in 1970 that anti-capitalist themes “went down well in Germany at the time” — but an anti-authoritarian one as well. On the surface, the 1943 Titanic is an anti-British propaganda piece in which various teams of speculators led by White Star Line president Ismay (E. F. Fürbinger), John Jacob Astor (Karl Schönböck) and a British lord named Douglas are all scheming to drive the price of White Star stock down so they can each make a drive for control more cheaply. In order to bolster his own bid to buy the line outright Ismay commits the Titanic to break the world’s record for the Atlantic crossing[1] and orders his captain, Edward J. Smith (Otto Wernicke, best known as police inspector Lohmann in Fritz Lang’s first two sound films, M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, here made up to look surprisingly like Emil Jannings in the pre-Dietrich scenes of The Blue Angel), to go full speed ahead no matter what.

The only voice of sanity on the bridge of the Titanic is first officer Petersen (Hans Nielsen), a German hired on at the last minute to replace a British officer who got appendicitis and had to miss the sailing (lucky him!). Petersen takes the role officer Lightaller (the hero of the later Titanic film A Night to Remember, which unique among dramatizations of the incident avoided inventing characters and found enough drama among the actual people on board to make a feature film — and which apparently actually “cribbed” some footage from this one!) played in actuality, and it’s pretty evident that whoever at the Ministry of Propaganda read the script and greenlighted it in the first place went no farther than thinking, “Ah, German good — British bad.” But instead of being a stock duty-über-alles German officer, Petersen is shown defying Ismay and challenging the captain’s authority in their demented pursuit of a world’s record, and not only that but (as Charles pointed out) expressing a quite defeatist attitude in his determination to warn them that there are icebergs in the area and the ship is going to sink if it runs into one. I’m sure it was this, far more than the actually rather decorous scenes of the ship’s passengers attempting to flee and taking their chances in the ocean, that led the Propaganda Ministry to ban this film in Germany and restrict its showing elsewhere — the 1943 Titanic is really about a bunch of stupid people at the top of a hierarchical organization who end up killing hundreds of people due to their pig-headedness and greed, and one can readily imagine how the Nazi government wouldn’t want their people seeing a film with that as its main theme!

Of course, there’s a lot more to Titanic than that. There’s a lot of highly Germanic playing among the actors supposedly portraying English people (Fürbinger as Ismay in particular looks like Conrad Veidt at his most malevolent), a lot of romantic intrigues — Ismay is engaged to one woman but because his stock speculations are going wrong is preparing to dump her for a fabulously wealthy Russian countess, Sigrid Olinsky (Sybille Schmitz, best known for Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr — incidentally she and Wernicke are the only members of the cast whose names I recognized) — and a nice pair of lovers, a musician on the ship’s band named Franz Gruber (probably not coincidentally also the name of the man who wrote the melody of “Silent Night”) and a manicurist, who essentially serve the same purpose in the storyline as the Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet characters served in the 1997 Cameron Titanic. There are also some inaccuracies, some of them pretty obviously related to the propagandistic “spin” Selpin and Zerlett-Olfenius were putting on the story — in the film the Titanic’s radio stays on throughout the night of the accident and receives quite a few iceberg warnings which Ismay orders the crew to ignore (indeed, their attempts to cover up what’s really going on leads to a bizarre scene in which an officer announces to the crowd in the great ballroom that they’ve stopped the engines only to do a maneuver and change the ship’s direction) — in real life, of course, the Titanic’s radio was turned off in the evening and the iceberg warnings were never received.

Accounts differ on how much of the action was done with models and how much was real — the Web site claims an entire ship was actually sunk for this film and it also says this was the first Titanic film to show the ship breaking in half as it sank (which it actually did, but it doesn’t in the film — it pretty clearly sinks in one piece and as I can recall no film dramatizing the Titanic incorporated the breakup until Cameron’s, which was the first made after the actual wreckage was found and thus the split was confirmed; indeed, the last Titanic film made before Cameron’s, Raise the Titanic!, based a good part of its plot line on the idea that the hull would still be intact when it was found[2]) — but what can’t be disputed is that despite (or, perhaps, because of) its propagandistic leanings and some rather over-the-top acting, the 1943 Titanic is quite a good movie, with an opening scene on the British stock exchange Bertolt Brecht could have written (talk about both political ends meeting in the middle!) and some effective action and atmospherics aboard the doomed ship — enough of the Expressionistic tradition in Weimar-era German cinema (the “look” that, with so many of the German talents relocating to America before and especially during the Nazi era, infiltrated Hollywood and became one of the bases for film noir) lingered on in the Nazi days that this film took advantage of it when it was appropriate. — 9/1/04

[1] — I can’t help but wonder if Selpin and Zerlett-Olfenius cribbed this plot device from the Gene Towne-Graham Baker script for the beautiful 1937 film History Is Made at Night, which isn’t strictly speaking a Titanic movie (it’s set in 1937 and the characters compare the fictional events in their film to the real-life Titanic disaster) but does center around a ship which sinks from a collision with an iceberg due to its owner’s mad and personally motivated pursuit of a world’s record at all cost.

[2] — I haven’t seen this film but I have read the Clive Cussler novel on which it was based, and the most moving scene in the book is when the successfully salvaged and risen Titanic finally makes it into New York, just seven decades too late.