Yes, that date up there is right. This is not the 1997 version staring Kate Winsletís nipples, nor any of the other two dozen major studio films on the Titanic sinking that have flogged that dead horse for the last 50 years since A Night to Remember set the bar too high. This one dates from the height of WWII and is unique in that it was made in Nazi Germany and vetted by the upmost levels of Hitlerís inner circle for maximum propaganda/entertainment value. And boy did people in Germany in 1943 need some entertainment to take their mind off the fact that the war was turning against them. By this year it was apparent to those in high places that Stalin would not rest until Berlin was in flames and there was very little that anyone in the German command staff could do to stop it from happening. To keep the populace placated and in a patriotic mood, a number of big-budget movie productions were rushed into theaters to distract them from the fact that the barbarians were at the Eastern gates. Our movie is actually pretty typical of Titanic movies, telling the basic story of how the liner was sunk and giving us some personal interest plotlines for the people aboard her. Itís neither especially impressive nor forgetably boring, itís just a serviceable time-waster that would be barely a footnote in cinematic history if it were not for the date and location of filming. I suppose then I could consider this one of my occasional series of movies from countries that we hate (or hated, past tense).
We open before the doomed liner sails, in the boardroom of the shipís owners, all stuffy-collared Englishmen with monocles and waistcoats. Money is what they are all about, bantering about stock prices and cost quotients and all in such a blatantly capitalistic way that they soon become cartoon characters with ďEVILĒ stamped on their foreheads for clarity. My god, theyíre actually twirling their mustaches! As various rich people enter the room, they are labeled by how much money they are worth, the more the millions the more the scorn. I suppose this meant something to 1943 audiences in on-her-heels Germany who needed another reason to hate the British for their cash-grabbing ways, but it seems pretty quaint and naÔve now, in an era when that sort of wretched excess is actually celebrated and encouraged. A great deal of the first half of the movie is taken up with long stretches of rich white people talking about money. How much money they already have, how much they plan on banking when the Titanic breaks the speed records, how much money they will rob from each otherís accounts when the stock price fluctuates. Blahblahblah, donít care. People in Nazi Germany made money, you know, businesses flourished, industry and labor fought and cooperated, a lot of rich white guys in Hamburg and Dresden made a ton of money profiting off the war and the suffering, capitalism and wealth inequality were not exclusive to the Allies.
Even their cumberbunds are evil!
While up on the top decks the vile Brits and filthy rich Americans cavort about with their crystal champaign glasses and feathered boas, down in steerage the common folk toil and sweat, happy but stoic in true Nordic fashion. These are who the audience is supposed to sympathize with, regular people with pride and courage and humble shirts. There is, of course, the Happy Drunk, the Sexy Barmaid, the Handsome Farmhand, the Kindly Professor, every stock character youíd imagine in a movie so obsessed with class and social stature, though little time is spent really trying to get to know any of them. Thereís a few requisite romantic subplots to fill up the running time, bland rich men court frilly-hatted women from named estates on the promenade decks, while down in the dark holds ill-mannered ruffians share cigarettes and kisses with provincial girls in rolled cuff-pants. Itís hard to sympathize about any of these people when you know how things are going to turn out for most of them, nor is it easy to tell any of them apart in the beginning, and once you do separate the characters by traits and voices, youíre past the point where you care about their petty lives.
Technically, the movie is well-made, the costumes are great, the set dressing is period, stuff looks and sounds like 1912. Exteriors were shot on an actual ocean liner and many of the extras were authentic sailors doing authentic sailor-y type things in the background. The Titanic model, used extensively in the climactic sinking scene, is quite detailed and looks pretty good in miniature. As always, I prefer a physical model over a CGI render any day, itís a specialized art form that is sadly lost. One of these days CGI will catch up to models on the believability scale, matching the tangible look and feel of an actual hard surface on film, but itís going to be a few more decades at least, despite what George Lucas and James Cameron want you to believe.
Real funnel smoke!
So the sun has gone down, the moon has come up, and the temperature begins to fall as the cold waters of the North Atlantic close in around the hard-charging Titanic, racing along at breakneck speed as her owners demand more and more steam to beat the Transatlantic speed record and cash in their stock options. Much of the narrative here is how the wise old Captain Smith and his experienced bridge crew know they are risking it all, but they are powerless to do otherwise as the rich Brits only care about what breaking the record will do for their accounts. Thereís little suspense to be had as the icebergs ominously drift into frame and the end is nigh. The actual sinking takes up the last third of the movie and follows what they thought was the truth to the letter. The Titanic impales herself upon the iceberg, the flooding is uncontrollable, the wound fatal. Onboard, as the realization sets upon them, the rich people fight like cannibals over the lifeboats while below decks the peasants hold back the waters as best they can and push on deck. The band plays, the bulkheads begin to fail, Molly Brown takes to her raft, and the sharks circle as the ship slowly settles in the water. The propaganda aspects of the movie fade away for a bit as the tension and excitement ratchets up, itís a story of human survival now and that crosses all national boundaries.
No, no you won't, sorry.
The shots of the model ship sinking are very, very good, the darkness and the swelling music score work well to make you really stress about if That One Guy and That One Girl are going to be able to survive (spoiler: they don't). From the lifeboats they watch the ship slip beneath the icy waves, creaking and groaning in metallic pain as her boilers burst and her keel snaps. Of course we now know that the Titanic didnít actually hit an iceberg, but people in 1943 couldnít have known about the time-traveling Illuminati nuclear submarine that torpedoed the liner to prevent her from delivering her cargo of recovered UFO remains from the Tunguska Event, so you can excuse them from filming the sinking how they believed it to have happened.
Down by the bow.
The final scene of the movie takes place in a courtroom in England as the surviving rich people set upon each other in an orgy of blame and scapegoating over the disaster. Someone has to be held accountable for the loss of the ship and it sure isnít going to be the stock market barons in their powdered wigs and perfumed snoods. Poor Captain Smith has the finger pointed at him, but heís ok with that because heís dead, having gone down with the ship. The take-away message for 1943 German audiences? The English are evil and they barely notice when they kill thousands of people out of greed, so you better support your local Nazi Party war bond collection and send your sons to the front. Despite that, still not a bad movie, worth a watch.
Not our fault, bro!
PS, if you live in Germany right now, don't watch this movie, it's still on the banned list with criminal and civil penalties.
Written in March 2014 by Nathan Decker.
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