Titanic (Herbert Sepin & an uncredited Werner Klingler, 1943)

by Douglas Buck February 19, 2018 3 minutes (714 words) Blu Ray

The astounding facts that this cinematic telling of the doomed maiden voyage of the Titanic was commissioned by the Nazi Propaganda Minister himself, Joseph Goebbels, as pro-German superiority and anti-capitalist agitprop, and that the making led to the apparently too outspoken (against the Nazi’s) director Sepin being imprisoned and murdered in his prison cell during production (hence the second uncredited director) alone should have made this an incredibly fascinating historical document… then again, the fact that it pretty much sank into obscurity (or at least semi-obscurity) until now perhaps bodes well for continuing future discoveries (I mean, if this film is barely known and talked about, how many more are waiting for us to eventually point our eager eyeballs at!).

If Goebbels was out to prove a worthy German adeptness and cinematic skill against their German and British enemies, they succeeded. The production design is impressive and the choreography of the actors throughout the expansive sets is well handled (though, it’s a bit unsettling to watch and listen to the stiff aggressive speech patterns and controlled performances by many of the actors, especially in the early boardroom scenes, as if directed to present Nazi superiority). The ship, while clearly a model, manages to impress as well, and the sense of chaos and terror after the dreaded iceberg is hit and the ship starts to go under and we watch the tragic fates of the various characters and their subplots play out, while obviously less grand than James Cameron’s insanely bloated effort (though, man, those final scenes are breathtaking – everything other than insipid Dicaprio and Winslett running about, that is), this early version still more than manages to be powerfully effective in its own way (I’d say more so than its eventual 1958 British counterpart, A Night to Remember, that apparently used a few of the disaster clips from this movie in it!). The scenes of the frenzied, terrified proletariat in steerage being forcibly separated by the armed crew from the wives and children to be saved, with chaotic images of desperate distraught faces stuck behind chain link fences and panicked men being randomly shot is powerfully harrowing.. and perhaps a reason why Goebbels eventually had the film suppressed, as it came across a bit too real with what was happening in Germany at the time.

While I have no idea (and highly doubt) the veracity of the claims of this version, setting the fault for the tragic loss of the ocean liner around rich, indulgent British and American capitalists irresponsibly pushing and bribing the ship’s captain (played by the one recognizable, to me anyway, face amongst the entire ensemble, Otto Wernicke, who had already played the cynically amused Inspector Lohman in two Fritz Lang masterpieces, M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse) to continue to push the liner faster in order to beat the speed record across the Atlantic Ocean and increase the value of their stockholdings in the ship’s company (with the only desperate voice of reason – and naturally only German on board — being the heroic First Officer, who begs unsuccessfully for the sleazy fat cat owners and the ship’s captain to recognize the dangers and slow down), making it an allegory about capitalist avarice (and its ultimately inherent destructive indifference towards humanity), rather than of rampant ego and hubris (which is how the story is usually told) and – what can I say? — I like this take on it. It’s certainly more contemporary and important to today’s climate, where we literally are first-hand witnessing the wanton destruction of the Earth and towards human life that unchecked corporate Wall Street is causing on a global scale.

The end of the film, where our German hero has amazingly managed to survive (through little effort of his own, as he spent his efforts trying to save every one around him) and sits in court to watch in quiet helpless frustration at the injustice of the final verdict for the ship’s sinking, which entirely excuses the rich elites who caused it, demanding no accountability whatsoever from the powerful perpetrators, and instead scapegoats the dead captain, a low man on the totem pole, and it is impossible not to see the correlations with today’s Western corrupt capitalist world.

_Titanic_ (Herbert Sepin & an uncredited Werner Klingler, 1943)

This review is archived under the “Buck a Review” column, written by Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. To read more of Buck’s smart and snappy reviews, click on the column sidebar link.

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