No, this isn’t James Cameron’s 1997 film, nor is it Jean Negulesco’s 1953 one. This is the 1943 German version of Titanic, an intriguing artifact of Nazi filmmaking that manages to suggest that all this could have been avoided had the powers that be only listened to the one—you guessed it—German officer on the ship. As filmmaking, it’s not much to get excited about, but as a curio, it’s something else again.
The Nazi film industry—controlled by Hitler’s minister of propaganda Josef Goebbels—was a carefully controlled affair, but one that sought to make its obviously propaganda-laden product a popular one as well, and for that matter an exportable one. As a result, many of the films it produced were fairly careful not to be too overt in the depiction of the glories of the fatherland. (Dull, tedious and clunky as their 1943 all-color fantasy Munchhausen might be, it’s only mildly effective in terms of propaganda—except for the failed attempt at showing how great the German film industry was.) Titanic, however, is one of their less subtle efforts.
Not only is the film saddled with a fictional German officer who could have prevented the disaster, but the disaster itself is no longer pinned on the arrogance of the directors of the White Star line and their “unsinkable ship,” but is turned into a critique of capitalism and its greed and desire to make a buck off the proletariat. That this is awfully close to Soviet propaganda seems to have escaped their notice—just as it escapes their notice that the head Nazis were themselves in the realm of greedy capitalism.
Of course, the real issue with any film of this nature is how effectively it works as spectacle, and Titanic is simply not much of a spectacle. Even at a brisk 85 minutes, the film is half over before the ship hits the iceberg—most of that time given over to ersatz Hollywood romance and watching the greedy capitalists bring all this to the disaster point. Even when this happens, there’s not much there other than some barely passable model work, which has to make way for more “I told you so” posturing by the impossibly stoic German officer. All of this makes for a fascinating—and very skewed—take on the story, but it doesn’t do much in the way of drama.
There was much grimmer drama behind the scenes of the production. Director Herbert Selpin unwisely criticized the script and a few other things, which resulted in his arrest by the gestapo before the film was finished. He was found hanged in his cell the next morning. Even after production resumed with a tamer director at the helm, it proved to be all for nothing. By the time the film was ready to be unveiled, the Reich was coming apart at the seams and it was decided that it just wasn’t the best time to treat the German public to scenes of mass death and destruction. As a result, Titanic was never released in Hitler’s Germany.