The Nazi German film version of the Titanic

Youtube video promo of the Nazi film version of the Titanic – 1943 Release.

The Nazi German film version of the Titanic.

Before James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster Titanic, the Hollywood Titanic of 1953, the 1958 British film A Night to Remember, and the 1997 Broadway musical Titanic - there was the Nazi German film Titanic.

Neither the first nor the best film telling the story of the doomed ocean liner, the 1943 German version is nonetheless fascinating– mainly because of the ways the story and imagery compares to John Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster, and as a study in overt propaganda. There’s the obligatory love story, poor immigrants dance below deck, and the band keeps playing “Nearer My God to Thee,” but the real thrust of this version is an accusation of the ruthless capitalists who caused the catastrophe.

Usually, the tale of the RMS Titanic serves as an object lesson in hubris, but in the Nazi-version, the sin that causes the death of over 1,500 passengers is greed: Sir Bruce Ismay, the owner of the White Star line played by Ernst Fritz Fürbinger, wants to break all records to drive stock prices up while John Jacob Astor (Karl Schönböck) is trying to thwart him so he can take over the company.

The epilogue makes clear that there is no justice for the death caused by the speculating Englishman and his American nemesis. The sympathetic characters display more “German” virtues that must have seemed useful to the Nazis in 1943: honor, duty, obedience.

Nonetheless, Goebbels wasn’t happy with the film:

Titanic was the most expensive German production up until that time and endured many production difficulties, including a clash of egos, massive creative differences and general war-time frustrations. All of this resulted in Joseph Goebbels arresting the film’s director, Herbert Selpin, for treason and ordering him to be hanged in his cell the very next day. The unfinished film, the production of which spiraled wildly out control, was in the end completed by Werner Klingler.

The premiere was supposed to be in early 1943, but the theatre that housed the answer print was bombed the night before the big event. The film went on to have a lackluster premiere in Paris around Christmas of that same year, but in the end, Goebbels banned it altogether, stating that the German people, at that point going through almost nightly Allied bombing raids, were less than enthusiastic about seeing a film that portrayed mass death and panic.

A Tobis production begun in 1942, this production nearly sank as decisively as the doomed ocean liner. The film’s director, Herbert Selpin, infuriated with the slow second-unit shooting in the port of Gdynia, was overheard making remarks damning the German army. Reported to the Gestapo, Selpin was arrested and later found hanging in his prison cell, the victim of an arranged “suicide.”

In April, 1943, the film was banned by the Berlin censors for German release because of its terrifying scenes of panic, all too familiar to German civilians undergoing nightly Allied bombing raids. After extensive cutting, Titanic was released in occupied Paris and a few army installations. The film was seen in Germany finally in late 1949, but banned a few months later in the Western sectors (though not in the Soviet zone, because of its unmistakable anti-British-capitalist theme).

The 27,561 gross ton Cap Arcona, named after Cape Arkona on the island of Rügen in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, was launched in 1927. It was considered one of the most beautiful ships of the time. It was the largest German ship on the South American run. It carried upper-class travelers and steerage-class emigrants, mostly to South America.  In 1940, it was taken over by the Kriegsmarine and used in the Baltic Sea as an accommodation ship. In 1942 it was used as a stand-in for the doomed Titanic in the German film version of the disaster.

Technically, this Titanic is an excellent catastrophe film; its shots of the ship sinking were later used by the 1958 British film without credit. Somewhat true to the facts though peppered with fictional good Germans both on and below deck, in steerage the film ends with a trial scene that aquits the White Star Line management, followed by a final slide denouncing England eternal quest for profit. These packed a powerful propaganda punch; cut from the postwar prints, they have been restored for this Kino on Video version.

Original film score by Werner Eisbrenner

Another Brief Review of the Nazi Titanic.

A fascinating film no matter how you look at it. The legend is that it was instigated by Joseph Goebbles as one of his supreme efforts in anti-British propaganda. But when all was said and done, it backfired big time. The director of the film, Herbert Selpin, was murdered by the Nazis for crafting what seems today a thinly-veiled indictment of the Nazi government, and this “Titanic” ended up being banned from all German theaters until years after the war. And then, the British banned it again (they never did like being reminded of the disaster) for its supposed anti-British content, while at the same time it was being shown with no problem in those parts of Germany occupied by the Soviet Union. Oddly enough, they had no problem with the film’s anti-Capitalist tone. In any event, this “Titanic” remains one of film history’s most fascinating takes on the famous legend — a roughly equal mixture of historical fact, outrageous legend, and outright lies. Still, it’s better than some of Hollywood’s films on the same subject, and you don’t have to look far to see where James Cameron cribbed a lot of the ideas for his own over praised epic. There are also some very impressive (for the time) special effects, many of which were used in what is still the best Titanic film, 1958’s “A Night to Remember,” along with some of the most moving sequences to appear in any film about the tragedy (my favorite is the moment when wireless operator Phillips releases his pet canary into the night sky). My highest praise to Kino video for making this important historical film available in a proper DVD release with English subtitles. It’s a must for both the film and Titanic buffs out there who think that they’ve seen it all.

Order the DVD film from AMAZON by going to this link.


About Michael L. Grace

MICHAEL L. GRACE is part of the award winning team that created the internationally performed award winning musical SNOOPY, based on PEANUTS by Charles M. Schultz. SNOOPY continues to be one of the most produced shows (amateur & stock) in America/Worldwide and has had long running productions in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and in London's West End. There are over 100 individual productions every year. He has written movies for TV, including the award-winning thriller LADY KILLER, various pilots and developed screenplays for Kevin Costner and John Travolta. Besides co-writing and co-producing SNOOPY, he wrote and produced the one-man play KENNEDY. He produced P.S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD by pulitzer prize winning author James Kirkwood. He wrote the stage thriller FINAL CUT which had productions in the UK, South Africa and Australia. His one-man play, KENNEDY - THE MAN BEHIND THE MYTH, was developed for HBO and has starred Andrew Stevens, Gregory Harrison and Joseph Bottoms. He has recently been involved in European productions with CLT-UFA, Europe's leading commercial television and radio broadcaster. He wrote MOWs THE DOLL COLLECTION, THE BOTTOM LINE and LAST WITNESS for German television. While in college and graduate school he worked as a foreign correspondent for COMBAT, the famous leftwing Paris daily, and as a travel writer. He visited more than 50 countries. He struggled as an actor, then joined the enemy and entered the training program at William Morris. He became a publicist and worked for Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's manager, at Paramount and MGM. He followed with a brief stint as a story executive, working in the frantic horror genre period of the early 80s and wrote THE UNSEEN. He went onto write for episodic television and develop series pilots. He was a continuing writer on such series such as LOVE BOAT, PAPER DOLLS, and KNOTS LANDING. He developed screenplays for such major award winning directors as Nicolas Meyers, Tony Richardson and J. Lee Thompson. He has written for all the major networks and studios. He has been hired numerous times as a script doctor, doing many uncredited rewrites on TV movies and features. He is currently writing A PERSON OF INTEREST, a thriller novel, and, IT'S THE LOVE BOAT... AND HOW IT CHANGED CRUISING BY SHIP a non-fiction book dealing with how the hit TV series as a major cultural phenomenon and altered the style of cruising by ship. He was raised in Los Angeles. He attended St. Paul's, USC and the Pasadena Playhouse. He received a B.A from San Francisco State University where he majored in theatre arts and minored in creative writing. He is listed as a SFSU leading alumni. He also apprenticed at ACT - The American Conservatory Theatre. For a brief period he had intentions of becoming an Episcopal(Anglican) priest and attended seminary at Kelham Theological College in the UK. When "the calling" wasn't there, he left seminary and did graduate work at the American University of Beirut. He has guest lectured at USC, UC San Diego, McGill, Univ. of London and the Univ. of Texas on the business aspects of making a living and surviving as a writer, focusing on development hell, in the Hollywood entertainment industry. Grace is a lifetime member of the Writers Guild of America, the Dramatist Guild and former regional chairman of the Steamship Historical Society of America. He resides in Palm Springs.

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