Sunday, March 16, 2008

Eine Nacht zu erinnern

Everybody knows the story of the Titanic: hubristic shipbuilders build the hitherto biggest ship in history, and claim that it's "unsinkable", only to have the ship hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage and sink, killing some 1400 people. The story has been told on film many times, and thankfully to the best of my knowledge, Hollywood has never tried to make a version in which the Titanic does not in fact sink. (They did make The Unsinkable Molly Brown, but that's based on a true story of one of the survivors.)

Perhaps one of the most curious versions is one made in 1943 in Nazi Germany, which is airing overnight at 2:30 AM on March 17, as part of TCM's Imports series. The story itself is about as accurate as any other version of the movie, although having been made in Nazi Germany, there certainly is some propaganda. This version paints the executives of the White Star Line as greedy capitalists to a much greater extent than Hollywood would have done in the studio era, or in what is probably the best cinematic look at the disaster, A Night to Remember. (To be fair, though, the Hollywood of 2008 would probably revel in propagandizing against large companies. Remember Denzel Washington's idiotic line in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate that "this is what happens when you have rich people doing bad science"?) Also, there's a ludicrous casting change as one of the ship's officers is not English, but German -- and this is the only officer who shows any virtue in the run-up to the disaster, recognizing the dangers of going too fast through iceberg-infested waters where his English superiors steam blithely on.

What is more interesting about this version, though, is the back story. The original director, Herbert Selpin, faced a critic far tougher than Siskel and Ebert, with their two thumbs down: watching over the production was Joseph Goebbels, the man responsible for Nazi propaganda. Goebbels eventually concluded that showing a movie about a sinking ship probably wouldn't be a good idea for the Germans of 1943, who faced air-raids and, with the defeat at Stalingrad, a proverbial sinking ship of their own. So Goebbels had the director arrested; soon thereafter Selpin was found dead in his jail cell under mysterious circumstances. This version of the Titanic story was banned in Nazi Germany, although interestingly enough it was allowed to be shown in occupied France, where audiences loved it, making it a big hit.

It's not the greatest version of the Titanic disaster, although it's more than passable, and not dreadfully overlong or filled with crappy CĂ©line Dion music the way James Cameron's version is. It's worth watching, and not just for the historical curiosity of seeing the Nazi take on a very British disaster. It's also available on DVD, although as an import, it can be a bit pricey.

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