“Goebbels recognized it as a tale that could easily be fashioned into an indictment of British society.”
FOR MORE THAN 100 years, the RMS Titanic has fascinated the world. Not surprisingly, the story of the supposedly “unsinkable” ocean liner that foundered in the North Atlantic on its maiden voyage has been the focus of no fewer than a dozen feature films. But perhaps the strangest cinematic portrayal of history’s most notorious maritime disaster came out of Nazi Germany (of all places) at the height of World War Two.
The 1943 film was the brainchild of Hitler’s own propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, who hoped to fashion the well-known disaster narrative into a damning indictment of British greed, hubris and folly.
Of course Goebbels’ Titanic featured all the classic elements of the story: the ship putting to sea without enough lifeboats; the captain, Edward J. Smith, ordering the helm to steam full speed ahead despite warnings of icebergs; the officers and crew ushering the wealthiest passengers to safety leaving hundreds of steerage-class ticket-holders to perish.
But if these true facts of the story weren’t somehow damning enough, Nazi screenwriters took a number of creative liberties of their own to further underscore the theme of British corruption and ineptitude.
The Nazi Titanic begins with crooked White Star Liner execs conniving to short their own firm’s stock just before the new flagship’s maiden voyage in hopes that a speedy ocean crossing will send shares soaring.
The Nazis also conjure up a host of fictional German heroes and heroines for the film. These include the protagonist, a dashing first officer named Petersen who leaps into action when disaster strikes. Backing him up is an assortment of wholesome Volksdeutsche–type passengers who do their utmost during the crisis, all the while the English first-class travellers trample one another as they stampede for the Titanic’s lifeboats.
Titanic cost Berlin an estimated 4 million Reichsmarks (roughly $180 million today) making it one of the most expensive films of the 20th Century. In fact, the final bill was proportionally greater than the price tag for the actual RMS Titanic, which would be about $174 million in 2017 currency. The movie featured an all-star cast and hundreds of extras, including a number of officers and sailors of the Kriegsmarine. It was shot on location in the Baltic port of Gdynia, Poland using one of the largest ocean liners of Weimar Germany as a set: the SS Cap Arcona. Ironically, this stand-in ship was itself lost in the closing days of World War Two after being attacked by Allied warplanes. Tragically, the vessel was carrying 5,000 concentration camp inmates and POWs.
Production of Titanic, which took place in the summer of 1942, was plagued with difficulties, not the least of which was Allied bombing raids on port facilities near the filming locations. And the problems didn’t end there. The German naval officers who acted as the movie’s technical advisors spent much of their time on set romancing the female cast members, something that drove the director, Herbert Selpin, to distraction.
During one blowout, the 38-year-old filmmaker launched into tirade about the entire project and the military in general. He was subsequently denounced by the movie’s screenwriter and arrested. After refusing to atone to for his outburst, Selpin was found hanging in his cell by his own suspenders in an apparent suicide. It was widely rumoured in the German film community that Gestapo agents, acting on Goebbels’ personal orders, strangled Selpin and then strung up his corpse. A new director was assigned to the project and the film was completed and ready for release in November, 1943.
Amazingly, the Nazi Titanic would never be seen by German audiences, at least not in wartime. After a premiere in Paris, Berlin suddenly had second thoughts about the film and banned it before it went into general release. Third Reich officials felt the dark visuals of civilians dying by the hundreds might unsettle German audiences, many of whom faced the nightly horrors of enemy bombings. Instead, Nazi filmmakers spent the rest of the war shooting more uplifting tales to rally flagging spirits on the home front.
Titanic would only find mass audiences as a bizarre propaganda artifact of World War Two. The movie was screened as such in the Communist Bloc throughout the 1950s. Later, British filmmakers recycled some of its footage for the landmark 1958 epic A Night To Remember, supposedly the definitive movie on the sinking. The Nazi Titanic would reappear in its entirety as a home video release in Germany in 1992 and then as a remastered DVD in 2005.
Ironically, the picture made its biggest splash in 2012 for the 100th anniversary of the actual sinking when the British Film Institute organized a screening in London as part of a larger festival of Titanic movies.
To see the the Nazi Titanic for yourself (complete with English subtitles), click here: