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The other 'Titanic': The Nazi version you’ve never seen

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The Nazi version of the Titanic story that fed shots (and plots?) to later western versions of the tragic tale...

The lost Nazi 'Titanic'

On the evening of April 12th 1912, the White Star liner RMS Titanic hit an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean on her maiden voyage to the brave new world that was America, taking nearly fifteen hundred souls with her into the cold, lonely depths that were to become her final resting place. As with any great tragedy, in time movies are made about them, and the tragic story of the sole outing of the most luxurious, not to mention fastest, liner in the world at the beginning of the last century has been tackled a number of times.

Arguably the most famous, but unquestionably the most successful, of course, is James Cameron's 1997 magnum opus starring Leonardo De Caprio and Kate Winslet (not forgetting fabulous supporting turns from David Warner and Billy Zane), which sails back into cinemas this April in glorious 3D to celebrate both its own fifteenth anniversary and the centenary of the loss of the original ship. Though it took a great many liberties with historical facts in the name of dramatic license, it remains a powerful hybrid of love story and classic disaster movie, and is one of this author's favourite films, even despite the dangerously high levels of sugar and cheese baked into the script.

Thirty-nine years prior to Cameron's offering, the Titanic's doomed voyage had previously been brought to the silver screen in Roy Ward Baker's A Night To Remember (1958), a moving and engaging flick which is still held in the highest regard by many cinephiles, myself included.

But a decade and a half earlier there was another film, also called Titanic, which you've probably never heard of, but which contains more drama, intrigue, mystery and horror than every other film about the pride of the White Star Line combined; and that's just the behind-the-scenes story.

"This probably contains more drama, intrigue, mystery and horror than every other film about the pride of the White Star Line combined; and that's just the behind-the-scenes story"

A still from the lost Nazi 'Titanic' movie

Our tale begins in 1942, in the office of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. Inspired by the blatantly political overtones of American movies like Casablanca (1942), set in Nazi-occupied North Africa and rush-released to capitalise on the publicity from the Allied invasion of the area a few weeks previously. Already an advocate of using celluloid to promote the agenda of the Nazi party, when a script landed on his desk set around the sinking of the Titanic, portraying the British and Americans as evil, greedy capitalists who put profiteering above the preservation of human life, and the Germans in steerage  as heroic and compassionate in the face of disaster, Goebbels decided that such a movie was what Germany needed to rally the people and promote the war effort.

In the opening scene, White Star Line president J. Bruce Ismay (E F Furbringer) is shown colluding with the board to sell their shares in the company, safe in the (naturally secret and undisclosed) insider knowledge that the Titanic was capable of breaking the world speed record for a liner, and then buying them back just before the news of the amazing feat is released to the press. Of course this greed leads to the inevitable rendezvous with an iceberg, despite the German hero, First Officer Herr Petersen (Hans Nielsen), pleading with the Captain to slow down, and sets the stage for the Teutonic seafarer to rescue dozens of passengers, including a young girl who has been left to die in her cabin by her despicable British mother, before testifying against Ismay at the end of the film, though to no avail as the evil capitalists place all the blame firmly on the shoulders of the  deceased Captain Smith (Otto Wernicke).

A scene from the lost Nazi 'Titanic' filmGoebbels chose his favourite director, Herbert Selpin, who had previously helmed a couple of successful action movies to take charge of the production, for which he granted a very generous budget of 4 million Reichsmarks (equivalent to 100 million dollars today). With money not an issue, Selpin immediately ordered the construction of several extravagant sets in Berlin and commissioned a 20 foot long replica of the Titanic for the scenes of its sinking. He also demanded the use of an actual ship on which to shoot the exteriors which, despite the fact that the German war machine was stretched to the limit at this point, Goebbels was able to obtain, securing the use of the SS Cap Arcona, which was to come to its own tragic end just four years later in a horrific and callous act that claimed more than three times the number of victims of the Titanic's sinking.

As with Cameron's Titanic some years later, however, the production was fraught with difficulties and dissent among the cast and crew, some of whom were visibly drunk on camera at times. Faced with this adversity, Selpin became frustrated to the point where one night he was a little too vocal in his damning of the German army and the war effort in general, a slip that led his friend and co-writer Walter Zerlett-Olfenius to report him to the Gestapo. Selpin was subsequently arrested and hauled in front of a distinctly unamused Goebbels who sent him packing to a cell. The next morning Selpin's body was found hanging from a pipe, and a verdict of suicide recorded.

The lost Nazi 'Titanic'

Goebbels handed the reins of the increasingly troubled production to director Werner Klingler who managed to complete the picture in time for a planned première in early 1943; but even this didn't go to plan, when the theatre housing the print to be shown was bombed the night before the big event. Titanic eventually got its première, albeit a very low key one, in Paris just before Christmas 1943, but by this time the Nazi war effort was faltering and Goebbels no longer believed that a film showing mass panic and destruction was suitable in light of the almost nightly raids over Germany - and he banned it.

The poster for the lost Nazi 'Titanic' movieIn the intervening years Titanic occasionally surfaced, despite being widely banned in most western countries for being an overt example of Nazi propaganda, but it finally got a much belated wide release in 2005 when a special edition DVD was produced and released by Kino Video, the movie having been restored to its original state after a much-censored version, which removed virtually all of the controversial propaganda elements, had been made briefly available in Germany in 1992.

As troubled, protracted and difficult as the film's eventual birth on DVD was, the ultimate fate of the SS Cap Arcona on which many of the exterior scenes were shot was immeasurably more horrific. On May 5th 1945, the ship had been loaded with prisoners of war who had been marched from various concentration camps across Europe in a last ditch attempt by the Nazis to remove all traces of them, and its tanks rigged to explode upon impact from any bombs. The ship was then sent into the middle of a war zone where Allied airborne raids were being carried out and the ship was, inevitably, hit by a bomb which sank it, taking almost five thousand prisoners to a watery grave.

In recent years, there have been allegations that footage from the Nazi Titanic had been used in the much lauded A Night To Remember (1958), and there is some truth to this, although the reality is that only four very brief shots from the German production, which was ground-breaking in terms of special effects for the day, were used in the later film.

Flipped shots from the Nazi 'Titanic' (1943) re-used in 'A Night To Remember' (1958) - source: http://nzpetesmatteshot.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/tale-of-two-titanics-retrospective-look.html
Source: http://nzpetesmatteshot.blogspot.co.uk

Comparisons have also been drawn to James Cameron's movie in terms of the actual plot, suggesting that the Oscar-winning director was familiar with the earlier version. Among the similarities that are cited are a sub-plot involving stolen jewellery, a character ending up in the ship's jail as the vessel sinks and being rescued with an axe (though this was based on an actual event), a tour for the first class passengers that includes the engine room (which in reality would have been out of bounds to passengers under any circumstances) and a young, handsome male lead who falls for a girl who is due to marry a man she cares nothing for and tries to persuade her to abandon her plan.

Whether Cameron cribbed or not, however, doesn't really matter in the long run, as interesting as the comparisons are, because he crafted an entertaining and blockbusting film that many of us still love a decade and a half later, and which I am certainly looking forward to experiencing in 3D after seeing what can be done with the medium in the hands of masters when I attended the press screening of The Phantom Menace recently. If there's anybody alive today who can coax magic from the third dimension, then it's Cameron.

As for the Nazi take on the tragic tale of the White Star Line's lost liner, it stands as a fascinating insight into the use of film as a propaganda tool, as an example of early special effects wizardry, and as a belated lesson, courtesy of Joseph Goebbels, of the perils of making expensive vanity movies in times of economic and political uncertainty.


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