Josef Goebbels was a failed writer and Adolf Hitler was a failed artist, but they saw themselves as film connoisseurs. They saw as many films as possible, many of which were not permissible in Nazi Germany because of Goebbels’ censorship laws.
Goebbels noted that American action and dramatic films were far more successful than those his propaganda ministry produced. Films like Casablanca, a blockbuster that gave a negative image of the Nazis. He recognized that his propaganda efforts were too heavy handed and obvious in their message.
After much study of American films, he decided he would create a Hollywood on the Rhine. And since the American film industry was populated by many successful Jewish directors, actors, producers, and scriptwriters, his films would be superior.
German screenwriter Harald Bratt wanted to create a movie based on Josef Pelz von Felinau’s 1936 book, Titanic: Tragedy of an Ocean Liner. Goebbels heartily approved. Their film would embarrass and demoralize the British, tarnishing their reputation and isolating them from the international community.
Goebbels’ epic film featured stunning special effects, lavishly done by director Herbert Selpin. The best actors and crew in Germany were recruited. The cast portrayed greedy, corrupt British capitalists, self-serving officers, cowardly first class passengers, and ethnic stereotypes.
Curiously, a lone German named Petersen was a member of the all-English ship’s crew. He alone continually cautioned against speeding through the ice fields of the North Atlantic. White Star Line head Bruce Ismay was portrayed as offering the captain thousands of dollars for every hour he arrived in New York ahead of schedule. His investors toasted him as a genius and rushed to telegraph their orders to buy up all the shares they could get.
As the ship sank, Petersen heroically rescued passengers, including Ismay, so he could be prosecuted for his crimes.
Despite a war going on, scenes were shot on location on the Baltic coast. The German liner Cap Arcona, in use as a floating barracks, had been inspired by the Titanic and built in 1927. It was quickly refurbished to portray its mentor. Even though the war was turning against Germany, sailors were pulled off duty to serve as extras in the filming.
A passenger ship of the “Hamburg-South America” line, |
Cap Arcona sailed regularly between
Hamburg and Rio de Janeiro for twelve years.
The filming ran behind schedule and way over budget. Goebbels finally screened his masterpiece on December 17, 1942. He judged it a catastrophe. While intended to portray Britain as a nation of idiots, it closely mirrored Germany as the sinking ship under the command of a fool. And the graphic sinking scenes might offend families of German sailors lost in the war.
Goebbels banned his pet project. Despite all the pre-release hype, it was not shown in Germany. Eventually, it was shown outside of Germany in occupied territory and neutral nations. Audiences deemed it well-made.
And in 1958, a British film company producing Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember used the German footage of the climatic sinking scenes because of the quality and realism.
Recommended Reading: The Nazi Titanic: The Incredible Untold Story of a Doomed Ship in World War II by Robert P. Watson. 2016