So, did you know that the first film to actually be named Titanic was made by the Nazis?
Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, seized upon the Titanic disaster as an excellent subject for a propaganda film, which would demonstrate the folly of British and American capitalism. The resulting film ate a great deal of money – even with the war going on – and experienced a troubled production. Naval officers serving as consultants behaved badly on set, and when the director, Herbert Selpin, complained a little too loudly, he was arrested, and later found hanged in his cell. By the time the film was finished in 1943, Goebbels felt that German audiences wouldn’t react well to the scenes of panic and death during the sinking, given that they were experiencing plenty of that in real life thanks to the Allied bombing raids; thus, he banned it from being screened in Germany, though it was shown elsewhere in Nazi-occupied Europe.
As a side note, a German ocean liner called the Cap Arcona was used for much of the filming. On 3rd May 1945, just a few days before the war ended in Europe, the Cap Arcona was sunk in the Baltic Sea by Allied bombers, who didn’t realise that she was being used as a prison ship for concentration camp inmates. About 5000 people onboard are believed to have died, over three times more than in the actual Titanic disaster.
The messages that the movie tries to deliver are far from subtle; the theme of greed is positively rammed down the audience’s throats. White Star Line chairman Bruce Ismay, appearing for the first time in a Titanic movie (though without a moustache), intends to make a killing on the stock market by buying lots of cheap shares in his company, then waiting for their value to skyrocket when the Titanic wins the Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic crossing. Never mind that in real life, a) you couldn’t buy shares in the White Star Line since it was owned by the International Mercantile Marine Company and b) the Titanic was never intended to be the fastest ship on the Atlantic run. As in most other films, the Titanic is also treated as one of a kind, when in fact her sister ship Olympic had entered service ten months previously.
Meanwhile, the crew are offered bonuses for making the ship go faster; businessmen try to get market reports through the wireless; and people talk about their fellow passengers in terms of how rich they are. As safety is dismissed in the name of profit, the only voice of reason is the film’s protagonist, Officer Petersen, who happens to be German. Needless to say, the Titanic did not actually have a German officer onboard; the film explains it away by claiming Petersen is standing in for an officer who went on sick leave. Petersen vociferously protests against the Titanic going at full speed with ice ahead, seeming quite certain that the so-called unsinkable ship will definitely sink, if and when it hits an iceberg.
The film also features a number of subplots involving the sizeable cast of side characters. However, some of these feel chopped up and are difficult to follow, such as one involving a stolen jewellery box. There are a couple of romantic subplots: one between Petersen and a female passenger which doesn’t really go anywhere, and the other between musician Franz and manicurist Hedi. Hedi, it turns out, is being pressured by her parents to marry an eligible man whom she doesn’t love, but it takes Franz mere moments to make her abandon that idea – indeed, he practically orders her to do so.
The overarcing themes, and black and white morality, continue after the ship hits the iceberg. Ismay first demands a place in a lifeboat, then resorts to bribery. At one point, a first-class gent throws aside another passenger trying to climb down into a lifeboat, only to upset the whole boat as a result. I was surprised that the film actually includes the Californian, the vessel that was believed to be within sight of the sinking Titanic but did not go to the rescue; here, the Californian’s crew mistake the Titanic’s distress flares for celebratory fireworks. The film ends with a declaration of injustice as at the inquiry, the deceased Captain Smith is made a scapegoat and Ismay himself suffers no repercussions for his actions.
The visuals and effects are pretty decent overall: the opulent sets, the model Titanic used for most of the film (a little footage of this was actually recycled in the later film A Night to Remember), and the flooding and scenes of panic in the final moments as everything falls apart. An exception is the model in the final plunge, which goes down too cleanly to be convincing, and also appears to still have lifeboats attached to it.
Even when disregarding its origins, the 1943 Titanic is not a great film. It does make an effort to tell a proper story tied to this historical event, and again carries some historical significance by itself; but the heavy-handedness of its themes and the poor utilisation of its characters reduce its entertainment value.