Saturday, June 18, 2016

TITANIC (1943)

Call me a sensitive old fool, but I've never understood why, for over 100 years, people have happily lined up to watch movies about the Titanic, whose whole raison d'etre is the drowning death of 1,503 people. 

You'd think something like that would be appealing to, say, a ruthless propagandist who wants to stoke an audience's basest instincts. You know, like James Cameron. 

But the wartime German version of Titanic was produced by a guy who took agitprop a million nasty steps further: Josef Goebbels. Believing that an epic about the most famous maritime disaster in history would be ripe for anti-British propaganda (he could've made propaganda from a driving manual), Goebbels hired director Herbert Selpin to shout "Aktion!", and rubbed his bony hands in anticipation. 


Ismay looks like a real nice guy.
Unlike other movie versions of the Titanic, the bad guys here aren't the icebergs, but the British and American aristocrats onboard. The construction of the Titanic has fallen behind schedule, driving the price of shares of the White Star Line to new lows. White Star president Bruce Ismay wants money saved and corners cut as the ship comes down the assembly line. Tell me if you see trouble ahead.

Ismay and other fatcats then start gobbling up White Star stock at a low price, hoping to make a killing (no pun intended) when the Titanic reaches New York on time -- or, even better, ahead of schedule. As he gets onboard the ship for its maiden voyage, Ismay orders Captain Edward Smith to sail full steam ahead, no matter the danger.

Meanwhile, John Jacob Astor, also on the Titanic, wants the ship to slow down -- not to protect the passengers, but so they arrive late. He, too, is buying White Star shares, and it's in his interest if the ship doesn't live up to its hype. His aim to is to buy enough shares from nervous investors in order to own 51% of the Titanic -- and the company itself -- when they finally dock. Where are those Magic 8 balls when you need them?


As the Titanic sinks, Petersen (right) tries to 
figure out how to tell Captain Smith and Bruce Ismay
"Toldja so!" in German.
The one person who sees through the despicable Brits and Yanks is 1st Officer Hans Petersen, who is -- well, whaddaya know? -- the only German on the crew. Petersen (who never really existed) spends the entire movie warning of the inevitable disaster. Goebbels' message seems to be, Hey, we tried! 

However, Titanic's self-righteous epilogue -- "The deaths of 1,500 people remain unatoned, forever a testament of Britain's endless quest for profit" -- is more than a little rich in light of history.

As with other Titanic movies, fictional characters come and go faster than you can say, "Achtung!". A Cuban jewel thief. Young lovers who meet hours before the sinking. A Russian heiress who's lost her fortune. Friends in steerage fighting over the same woman. And because many of the extras were commandeered from the Nazi military, it might be the only Titanic movie where you're happy to see the passengers die.


Panic inside a very large bathtub.
There's nothing really bad about Titanic. But there's nothing particularly special about it either, despite its extravagant budget ($180,000,000 in today's money) and shooting time (over a year). Only one, brief exterior shot appears to have been filmed on a real ship. The Titanic miniature itself is unconvincing. "Drowning" extras stand upright in roughly four feet of water. Warm water at that. 


The producer (right) and his boss drop by the
set with some useful notes.

A movie about the making of Titanic would be more interesting. (A good summary can be found here.) But suffice it to say that Herbert Selpin wound up being a little too big for his lederhosen. In fact, it was likely the only time a producer fired his director by ordering him hanged in a jail cell. And they said Harry Cohn was tough!

So what did Josef Goebbels get in return for those four million Reichmarks lavished on Titanic? A movie about a preening, egomaniacal sociopath deliberately leading people to certain death. Say, where have I heard that before?... 

Realizing the obvious irony, Goebbels kept Titanic out of German theatres, but released it to Nazi-occupied countries and fellow Axis powers. A complete, uncensored video version wasn't made available until 2005. Whether it was worth the wait depends on your tolerance for underdeveloped supporting characters, overheated enemy propaganda, and a climax you've seen coming all your life. 

On the plus side: it's almost two hours shorter than James Cameron's Titanic, and lacks that version's horrible theme song by Celine Dion. 

OK, Goebbels, you win --this time.



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