Stuffy Brits, Nazis, Frat Boys, and Icebergs — The Many Cinematic Faces of the Titanic
The Nazi Titanic is kind of amazing.
For the course I teach this term, I delivered a lecture on the sinking of the RMS Titanic, using a modern disaster analysis framework to demonstrate how the pieces of a catastrophic accident fit together. As a happy side-effect, my wife and I ended up watching most, if not all, of the major cinematic takes on the Titanic. It was an incredible voyage, and not one that led to the places one might imagine…
Atlantic wasn’t the first Titanic movie to be made (the first movies about the sinking were made in 1912), but it does have a claim for being the first full length feature on the subject. It is also the worst of the Titanic movies, and not by a small margin.
Originally titled Titanic (and forced to change the title and the name of the ship by White Star), it is around 45 minutes of content stretched into an hour and a half. Watching it feels like witnessing two separate movies battling for screen time: the first is a tedious melodrama about stuffy British aristocrats talking about the ship they’re on sinking, and the second is a compelling drama about a ship sinking without enough lifeboats. Neither feels connected to the other until the final lifeboat is launched, at which point the second movie invades the first for a drink, everybody socializes, sings a hymn, and then the entire movie fades to black without ever bothering to show you the ship actually sinking.
I am not making that up.
While people fighting for space in the lifeboats is quite compelling, the director, Ewald André Dupont, insisted that his actors deliver each line with as much gravitas as possible. Rather than give the drama weight, it instead feels as though every actor is having to look up each sentence before reading it. The primitive model effects don’t help, and neither do the icebergs that hit the ship sticking to the side as though they are made of velcro.
As I mentioned above, the Nazi Titanic is kind of amazing…but not in any positive way. It is not, by any stretch of the most fertile imagination, a good movie, but of all of the cinematic treatments of the sinking we watched, it was easily the most fascinating, on just about every level.
The movie was Goebbels’ passion project, an epic treatment of the disaster that would be the ultimate propaganda film. It was intended to use the sinking of the Titanic to show the German people just how greedy and inhumane the British were. It was incredibly expensive (some articles on the subject estimate its production cost of 4 million Deutschmarks as being comparable to James Cameron’s 1997 film), and a massive backfire.
The movie is obsessed with the stock market. A full quarter to third of its running time consists of people talking about stock prices, buying and selling stocks, and attempting to manipulate stock values. A major subplot involves John Jacob Astor attempting a hostile takeover of the White Star Line, and Bruce Ismay attempting to stop him (while manipulating the stocks for his own benefit).
The only sane man is a fictional German officer named Petersen, who spends another huge chunk of the movie attempting to talk people out of running at full speed ahead into an ice field. The iceberg does not so much strike a glancing blow against the ship as sneak up to it and, U-boat-like, open up the side of her hull.
Authoritarianism and totalitarianism pervades the entire running length of the film. Some of this is overt — after the iceberg hits, officers bark orders military-style at the passengers, men are forcibly separated from women and children before being permitted up onto the boat deck, and any man who tries to enter a lifeboat is shot. After Petersen gives his love interest his coat (with rank insignia), she is giving orders at one of the lifeboats, and they are being followed without question. But, even when it is not overt, this authoritarianism is present and accounted for — invitations come across as orders, and the entire tone of the movie is oppressive.
The content is fascinating in a grim and dark way, but the more you learn about the making of the film and its aftermath, the more horrific it becomes. The original director, Herbert Selpin, was doing night shooting just outside of Berlin during bombing raids, during which the set would have been one of the only light sources. When Selpin complained a week into filming about the poor conduct of the military personnel who had been assigned to the movie as extras and consultants, he was arrested and murdered in his cell by the Gestapo. The cast was forbidden to ever mention Selpin again. This makes the cast performances doubly amazing, as they had to have been terrified for their lives during most, if not all, of the production. As a horrifying footnote, in 1945 the Nazis took the ship used for the filming, the Cap Arcona, filled it with thousands of Jews, dressed it up to look like a troop ship, and tricked the British into bombing it and strafing those who managed to escape.
This version was never shown in Germany, and, in fact, ended up failing as propaganda. While it was supposed to be a condemnation of the British, it worked far better as a condemnation of the Nazis. It also didn’t help that a movie in which thousands of people die was unlikely to play well in a country suffering from nightly Allied bombing raids.
In retrospect, this version deserves far more credit than it gets in comparison to those that followed.
Like the 1929 and 1943 versions, it is heavily fictionalized. Half of the movie revolves around a custody dispute, with a middle-class American trying to take her children home to the United States and away from her upper-crust husband. In the meantime, their teenaged daughter starts a romance with a college student traveling home after competing at Oxford. Then, the ship hits an iceberg.
The movie does not have a shortage of flaws. The cross-section of society is more that of 1950s America than 1912 England. The reason for the custody dispute is that the wife doesn’t like the wealthy upper-class lifestyle and doesn’t want her children to become spoiled by it. Once the lifeboats are launched, those remaining on board sing “Nearer My God to Thee” and then apparently vanish into thin air, as the ship sinks in silence with nobody visible on board.
The thing is that despite its flaws, it all WORKS. We do get invested in the characters, we do feel the power of the sinking and the humanity of those on board as they face the last moments of their lives. The lost singing a hymn just before the ship goes down is a legitimately powerful moment. It is a good movie.
It’s just not as good as the ones that followed.
A Night to Remember (1958)
Of all the Titanic movies we have seen, this one is the best. Based on the book by Walter Lord, and having Titanic survivor Joseph Boxhall (the ship’s 4th Officer) as a consultant, to this day it is the most accurate cinematic version of what happened on that terrible night (in fact, about the only mistakes it makes are having Lightoller involved with too many lifeboats, and having the ship go down in one piece).
What makes it remarkable is in part that it is an ensemble cast. All of the other versions of the sinking that we saw take a small group of characters and play out the disaster through their eyes. A Night to Remember does not — we see the sinking from multiple viewpoints. It’s actually a very risky move for the film, and it pays off in spades. Every single moment feels human, and when the ship goes down we feel the entire weight of the disaster.
And if it gets so little space here, it is because the movie is just that perfect — there’s not much else to be said.
An interesting thing about James Cameron’s Titanic: it is the only movie on the subject that we have seen (outside of Cameron’s own Ghosts of the Abyss) that showed any enthusiasm for the ship itself.
The Titanic was a big deal. It was the biggest, most luxurious, and most modern ship ever built. The people who boarded her were amazed by her, from first class to steerage. It was a technological marvel that many thought was unsinkable — and the wonder of the ship combined with the human tragedy of its sinking and all those who died is why we remember it today.
This movie loves the ship. In fact, this is the only version that gives you a sense of why people would want to travel on her in the first place. We see the life of the ship, and it’s hard to watch the first hour and a half of the movie without wanting to be aboard her as well.
The love story tends to get a lot of criticism, but it’s actually really well done. Both characters are young enough to be making rash decisions, so their story never feels forced. Once the ship hits the iceberg, we see the sinking through their eyes — just about every other version of the tragedy has used this to tell its story, but this is the movie that does it best, mainly through having the young lovers find themselves present for every important part of it. It is a storytelling conceit, but it works.
There are inaccuracies — a number of the scenes do not hold up to the actual history on close examination (Murdoch did not shoot himself, the Californian was in reality within sight throughout the sinking, and Ismay was not pushing Captain Smith to beat a speed record, etc.). But, overall, this is the movie that makes you feel as though you are there, something that not even A Night to Remember can quite pull off (mainly because it is in black and white, and this does create a barrier).
If it didn’t have to compete with A Night to Remember, this version of the sinking would be the best ever put on film. But, since it does have to contend with A Night to Remember, it falls short — but not by very much.