"Now money means nothing. Now it's just about survival."
This 1943 version of "Titanic" made in Nazi Germany is not the first sound film of the Titanic story, let alone the first movie devoted to the famous disaster. "Atlantic" (1929) was a fictionalized account (changing the name of the ship) directed by Ewald André Dupont in England. In the silent era Pier Angelo Mazzolotti made an Italian "Titanic" in 1915 and in Germany "In Nacht und Eis" ("In Night and Ice") was made by Mime Misu and released a few days after the sinking of the ship in 1912. The 1943 version was begun by director Herbert Selpin, who made the mistake of criticizing its writer and the Germany navy, so Joseph Goebbels had him arrested by the Gestapo and the next day Selpin was found hung in his cell. The film was then finished by Werner Klinger but was never released as Goebbels ordered the negative locked up. Speculation is that the scenes of mass death would considered too upsetting to show German audiences, but I am not sure if that ironic explanation rings true.
This Nazi version of the story of the "Titanic" can be reduced to two key elements. First, in an attempt to drive up the price of the stock of the White Star Line by Sir Bruce Ismay (Ernst Fritz Fürbringer), who invites the company's board on the Titanic's maiden voyage. Titanic assumes a record speed of 26 1/2 knots, which gets many of the rich men on board to buy stock, but the price is being driven down. Apparently Ismay is not as smart as John Jacob Astor (Karl Schönböck), whose wife is referred to as Lady Astor (Charlotte Thiele) even though she is American. Second, as the ship heads towards its fatal encounter with an iceberg, the only person on board who thinks this is a bad idea and tries to do something about it is 1st Office Petersen (Hans Nielsen), who happens to be the only German officer on board. Ismay dismisses Petersen's concerns, saying the German simply does not want England to win the blue ribbon (apparently the prize for being the fastest ship on earth). Petersen even tries to convince Ismay's mistress, Sigrid Olinsky (Sybille Schmitz, technically the star of the movie since her name comes first, plus she starred in "Vampyre") to persuade him to slow down the vessel, but that does not happen. When the ship hits the iceberg and starts sinking, Petersen blames Sigrid as much as Ismay, and consumed by guilt she gives up her seat in the lifeboat to a woman from steerage. Petersen is moved and gives her his coat.
Obviously there are some interesting aspects to this version of the familiar story. After hitting the iceberg the ship stops and the passengers down in steerage notice, so they all decide to march up to the big party that is going on above them and demand an explanation from the captain. A ship is sighted and they try to contact it by radio, but apparently it is an old ship without a radio. A recurring theme here is that for all the opulence of the ship's massive ballroom, Ismay did not spend money on spare filaments for the searchlights or the right colored rockets for an S.O.S. The flares are seen, but it is assumed the Titanic is celebrating since they are the wrong color (an interesting twist on what really happened to be sure). Oh, and the band on the Titanic? This time it is a virtual marching band with a tuba and xylophone who are still playing "Nearer My God to Me" as the ship goes down. But the oddest sight has to be when the Titanic goes down by the stern.
This "Titanic" is certainly interesting, although its inherent propaganda value is more interesting than its dramatic impact. The latter is conveyed more by the screams of the panicking passengers than anything in terms of the limited special effects. After all, we are talking a model of the ship and a luxury liner that is clearly not sinking; all of the lifeboats are away before suddenly the camera tilts to indicate what is happening. Besides, while the panic might have been intended to show the English as being cowardly, the fact that most of those screaming passengers are from steerage and going to die takes away notions of racial superiority. I assume John (Sepp Rist) and Anna (Lisolette Klinger) are a German couple, which explains why they are calm and compassionate while the non-Aryan passengers are trampling each other to death. Their fate is one of the key attempts at pathos here, along with the radio operator's pet bird, but the tacked on melodrama in the final scene undoes what had been effective with the couple up to that point.
Meanwhile, the ship is going down and Ismay is trying to make a deal to save his job, because this guy is really scum, which is certainly an indictment of the capitalists. No wonder Captain Smith (Otto Wernicke) refuses to do anything to save him. Fortunately Petersen is too good of a guy to let Sigrid go down with him and the ship; their parting is the one point in the film that tries to do something artistic, along with the capsizing of one of the lifeboats. Again, the desperate fight for survival, as those who are in the water try to climb aboard a overflowing lifeboat only to be beaten off by those already safe, can be read either way: as the inherent baseness of the English or as what happens to all human beings when they are reduced to simply trying to stay alive. But if you have any doubt about what the point of "Titanic" was, that is settled by the declaration at the end of the film that, "The deaths of 1,500 people remain unatoned for...an eternal condemnation of England's quest for profit."