Monday, 19 March 2012

Nazi Titanic: A documentary about a little-known Nazi version of the Titantic story

A Channel 5 documentary on a little known World War II Nazi propaganda film telling a heavily altered story of the sinking of the Titanic is like many documentaries about this period - sombre narration, grainy archive footage and talking head interviews with pensioners - but in this case the story itself is probably one of the most unusual to ever get the WWII documentary treatment, not least because it tells how the Nazis invented a fictional German officer for the film, to act as the only hero on board against the greedy, immoral British. Of course they did.

Seventy years on from the film's creation in 1942, and on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Titanic's doomed maiden voyage, the documentary shows that the Nazi interpretation of the Titanic's demise would be almost comical if the whole subject - the Nazis, the war, the Titanic - wasn't so steeped in human tragedy.

In clips from the film shown in the documentary, we see a First Officer Peterson, a member of the ship's crew and a German - even though in reality there were no Germans on the ship.

He warns his superiors about the dangers of icebergs - "Some icebergs can stretch on for kilometres," - and that no ship is unsinkable, not even the apparently unsinkable Titanic. His arrogant British bosses pay him no attention.

Then, later, as the ship begins to sink, this fictional officer is seen bravely rescuing armfuls of children from certain peril. A German hero.

Bribed the captain

Commissioned by the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels in 1940, the Titanic film was meant to be a Hollywood-style blockbuster and would inaccurately explain how the ship fatally hit the iceberg due to the profit-obsessed greed of its British operators, who bribed the captain to cross the Atlantic as fast as possible.

The film was intended as an attack on the British way of life - and would be shown to a German audience to persuade them that their government's planned invasion of Britain would make it a better place under Nazi rule.

The details about the film, which was wasn't released upon its completion because Goebbels didn't like the ending, are fascinating.

Herbert Selpin, a director known for shooting commercially successful action films, was placed in charge, and his ambition matched Goebbels's: he demanded 87 shooting days, 9 large sets of the ship's interior, the use of a real ship for exterior scenes, plus a 20ft model replica, says the programme, and all with an enormous budget of £100m in today's terms.

Other details are equally fascinating: a previous documentary-based anti-Semitic propaganda film hadn't caught on with audiences, but a dramatised one had - so Goebbels, keen to raise the profile of German cinema, set his sights on a dramatised Titanic action blockbuster to win over the German people.

Director arrested

But shooting the 20ft replica on location was beset with problems caused by fog and mechanical failures, and the schedule fell behind. In his frustration, the director Selpin was heard ranting against the Nazi regime. His bosses found out, he was arrested - and was found hanged in his cell. Goebbels appointed a new director to finish the film.

And the full sized ship used for exterior scenes - the Cap Arcona, a naval ship which was pulled out of service during the height of the war to be used in the film, such was the importance of the project - was later filled with Nazi prisoners of war, then filled with flammable gas and used as a target for Allied bombers, shortly before the Germans surrendered. When the bombs hit, over 4,000 people on board died, says the documentary.

The completed film itself was eventually shown for the first time in Germany in 1950, and with much of the propaganda material scaled back, reports the documentary, but some scenes were re-used in the 1958 British Titanic film A Night to Remember. Goebbels was unhappy with how the film ended - with hundreds of people fighting for their lives - as he felt it too closely matched the plight of the German people at the time, by then under regular attack from bombing.

Nothing to do with the Nazis is ever going to be a barrel of laughs of course, and this is anything but - but this is a gripping, sobering and engrossing documentary - and a story that covers two enduring obsessions: the Nazis and the Titanic.

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