Half a century before Leonardo DiCaprio declared himself “king of the world,” the Nazis produced their own epic “Titanic” disaster film.
Though Third Reich propaganda films “Triumph of the Will” and “Jew Suss” are better known, the Nazi “Titanic” was more expensive and scandal-plagued than any film in German history to the extent that propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels eventually banned the film before its maiden voyage in Germany 70 years ago this month.
In 1940, Hitler’s armies appeared unstoppable and all thoughts were focused on Britain and whether Germany would be able to conquer her from the skies. In such an atmosphere, hoping to slander British society and trumpet German heroism, film aficionado Goebbels scooped up a screenwriter’s inflammatory “Titanic” treatment.
For the first time, the doomed liner’s tale would be told by the now-familiar combination of historical facts and fictional characters, including a dashing jewel thief. The ship’s British backers were depicted as capitalist monsters, more concerned with making a profit than the safety of passengers. A heroic German first officer was invented to issue stern warnings about the ship’s speed and, as Titanic foundered, rescue abandoned children.
Ironically, though the screenplay condemned risk-taking and excess, Goebbels allocated an astounding four-million reichsmarks – or $180 million, today – to the production.
For Goebbels and fellow film-lover Hitler, “Titanic” was also an opportunity to outdo Hollywood to which end Goebbels enlisted one of his favorite anti-British filmmakers – Herbert Selpin – to direct the project. More than 1,000 propaganda films had been made in Germany under Nazism, but this one would outshine them all, Goebbels hoped.
That two Jews were among Titanic’s men of great wealth – Isidor Straus and Benjamin Guggenheim – was fortunate happenstance. (Inconveniently for anti-Semitic propaganda, however, both men went down with the ship as heroes.)
So as Hitler opened his air assault against Britain in July of 1940, “Titanic” producers set out to smear the Brits on celluloid.
Starting with its first scene at a secretive stock holders’ meeting in London, the film took ongoing liberties with the truth. Fictitious bribes, boasts and betrayals peppered the screenplay, all geared toward convincing Germans that the Nazi system was superior to Britain’s economy of decadence and exploitation.
Between the film’s conception and shooting, the tides of war had turned, with the Nazis tasting defeat for the first time. Germans had little to eat and suffered bombing raids, but “Titanic” producers created nine luxury interior sets in Berlin for the shoot.
Germany was obviously not alone in using film to try to manipulate the mood of a nation: the United States government also enlisted Hollywood to stiffen morale back home. Later in the war, post-production on “Casablanca” was rushed to coincide with the Allies’ 1942 landing in North Africa, demonstrating the combined power of battleships and propaganda.
Back in Berlin, a huge slipway was constructed to lure a twenty-foot Titanic model into a lake. Poor weather and the model’s failing electronics delayed shooting for months, as did Selpin’s insistence on filming only at night. Allied air raids kept Germany under a strict blackout, but – incredibly – Goebbels granted Selpin permission to keep the lights on.
The film’s climactic sinking scenes were shot aboard a passenger vessel called the Cap Arcona which the German navy had released from its gateway port to Russia specifically for “Titanic.” Though soldiers were desperately needed at the front, Goebbels assigned hundreds of them to serve as extras and on-set advisors.
Docked off Poland, the floating set developed a fraternity party atmosphere, with alcohol flowing freely. Unaccustomed to managing soldiers traumatized by war, Selpin missed shooting deadlines and bitterly argued with colleagues. As intoxicated actors repeatedly forgot their lines, the director called a crisis meeting.
Laying blame on the set’s rowdy soldiers, Selpin lambasted the Nazi war effort and mocked the Iron Cross for war heroes. Denounced to the Gestapo, the disgruntled director was sent to Berlin for questioning.
For weeks Selpin travelled between interrogation sessions in Berlin and shooting “Titanic” on the Cap Arcona, at once a favored Nazi filmmaker and potential enemy of the state. During one of his trips to Berlin, Selpin was interrogated by Goebbels himself. Though he could deny the charges and go free, he admitted to anti-Nazi outbursts.
The director was arrested and, one day later, was found hanging in his cell at Berlin police headquarters. Most historians believe Goebbels had Selpin murdered and framed his death to look like a suicide.
“[Selpin] came to the same conclusion the court would have made,” wrote Goebbels in his diary.
The propaganda minister ordered an unknown director to complete “Titanic,” and banned mention of Selpin’s name on the set. When shooting ended in October of 1942, it wasn’t clear to anyone what the finished product would look like.
Upon screening the replacement director’s first cut, Goebbels was horrified.
When “Titanic” began production in 1940, Germany’s war hopes were unbounded, and the population still lived well. By the end of 1942, German soldiers were being slaughtered in their thousands by an ascendant Red Army. Allied air raids were taking out entire city blocks, and Goebbels wondered how scenes of hysterical passengers fleeing a sinking ship would play to jittery civilians.
In addition to the hysteria element, “Titanic” was a story about inflexible leaders who brought catastrophe upon their charges. Didn’t the doomed ocean liner’s fate increasingly look like a microcosm of Nazi Germany? According to some scholars, Selpin had reworked the screenplay to encode resistance to the regime, making it even more verboten to Goebbels.
The Nazis banned “Titanic” in Germany, though permitted its screening in German-occupied countries. Seventy years ago this month, the 85-minute film had its European premiere – not in Berlin, but Prague. During 1944, “Titanic” was screened throughout Europe, and it played well.
The Nazis banned ‘Titanic’ in Germany, though permitted its screening in German-occupied countries
Two years after Selpin’s untimely demise, his stand-in for the Titanic – the navy’s Cap Arcona – met a similarly brutal fate.
It was the final week of the war, and SS officers planned to use the ship to evacuate 4,500 concentration camp inmates across the Baltic Sea. Removing all provisions and lifeboats, the SS filled the ship’s hold with gas canisters. Yet again, the vessel was painted to resemble something it was not – this time, a troop carrier.
As expected, Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) attacked the ship with fighter-bombers, doing the Nazis’ dirty work for them. More than 4,000 refugees from 30 countries were killed during the attack as the Cap Arcona caught fire and capsized.
Some British pilots said they thought the ship had been carrying fleeing SS officers to German-controlled Norway, and others admitted to firing on drowning concentration camp inmates. Three times as many people lost their lives in the Cap Arcona attack as on Titanic itself.
“We used our cannon fire at the chaps in the water,” said RAF pilot Allan Wyse of No. 193 Squadron. “We shot them up with twenty-millimeter cannons in the water. Horrible thing, but we were told to do it and we did it. That’s war.”
Three times as many people lost their lives in the Cap Arcona attack as on Titanic itself
Victims’ bodies washed ashore for months after the attack, and were buried in mass graves. Until 1971, parts of human skeletons periodically appeared on beaches – a grim reminder of the Third Reich and its disastrous “Titanic” flick, both of which went down in flames.
But not everything about the epic disaster of a film was a wash.
In 1958, British filmmakers surreptitiously incorporated four clips from the movie into their own Titanic drama, “A Night to Remember.” The footage was not credited, denying the Nazi makers of “Titanic” even a posthumous artistic victory.