Thursday, April 12, 2012

Titanic Week, 2: Be German

A series of daily posts to commemorate the centenary of Titanic's only voyage

"Be British", Captain Smith's apocryphal last instruction to the crew before officially relieving them of all duties in the final minutes before the Titanic slipped beneath the sea was, at the time, one of the defining elements of the story.
Symbolising the gentlemanliness under pressure that had characterised the behaviour of crew and passengers alike, it was widely quoted in the aftermath of the tragedy, was used as the title of a popular song, and is engraved on the memorial statue to Smith in Lichfield.
It does not appear, however, in any of the major film versions, perhaps because it was almost certainly journalistic invention, or more likely because it would have been deemed hokey even in 1958, when A Night to Remember established itself as the definitive assembly of facts and legends.
No surprise, of course, to find it absented from Titanic (1943), perhaps the strangest of all the major Titanic movies, directed by Herbert Selpin as a deliberate exercise in anti-British propaganda, under the aegis of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. If this Captain Smith had said "Be British", he would have meant: be devious, unscrupulous, selfish, and happy to risk the lives of countless innocents in the pursuit of prestige and financial gain.

Titanic was one of a series of Nazi films to present famous episodes from British history in a revisionist light, and as such it labours the arrogance, vanity and pomposity of the main characters.
The notion that Titanic is intrinsically unsinkable is used repeatedly to bat away concerns for her safety, which in this version are far more overt and unequivocal than in reality. J. Bruce Ismay of the White Star Line is portrayed as a devious opportunist, forcing Smith to keep the ship to its prescribed course even after ice is sighted, and to maintain suicidally high speeds so as to impress share holders and avert the collapse of the company.
This collapse, what's more, is being engineered by none other than John Jacob Astor, libelled outrageously as a scheming cad - and seemingly English to boot.
Throughout the film, 'British' is presented as a synonym for decadent, class-bound, uncaring and untrustworthy, and to emphasise the manner in which these characteristics are linked indelibly to the British social system, Ismay is given a class upgrade to Sir Bruce Ismay. (Astor, though referred to as Mr Astor in the film, is titled Lord Astor in the official film programme according to author Jeffrey Richards.)
For this reason, the film stresses for the first time on film the iniquitous differences between first class and steerage (second class is, as usual, ignored) and cynically contrasts the decadent luxury on the top decks with the rudimentary arrangements below.
Ironically, this blatantly propagandistic tactic - which absurdly condemns the provision of low-cost accommodation to allow the passage of those who cannot afford to travel in luxury, as if it would be fairer to exclude them entirely - became written into the fabric of the Titanic myth, there to be glibly - and, to be honest, still more crudely - revived by James Cameron, who goes one better even than Goebbels in suggesting that steerage passengers were deliberately prevented from escaping. (In truth, as ever, it was the unhymned second class that suffered the greatest percentage of male losses.)

The only character on board who behaves heroically is the German crew member Petersen, who spends the entire film rushing about trying to warn Smith of the impending danger and hold Ismay to account for his greed and folly. (Why is there a German crew member on board? Another of the officers asks the same thing, and the answer is: "An Englishman was scheduled, but he got a bad case of appendicitis.") He survives after saving a child from a flooding state room and swimming heroically to a lifeboat with her in his arms. In the final scene, set during the subsequent court of inquiry, he is thus able to denounce Ismay and watch impotently as British society closes ranks and conspires to lay all the blame at the door of the late Captain Smith.
There's also a noble German doctor (dismissed by Ismay as penniless and therefore of no interest), some light relief from the German love interest (orchestra violinist Franz and perky manicurist Heidi), and, on the other side of the racial wall, a villainous Cuban, riot-fomenting Jew and sexually-disruptive gypsy girl. 
There are some sympathetic British characters, mainly but not exclusively in steerage: there is a moving shot towards the end of an aristocratic woman (who we had previously seen explaining that she had overcome her terror of ships in order to take the voyage because she had been assured Titanic is unsinkable) watching impotently from the rails as the end approaches (having somehow missed a seat on the lifeboats that found room for 94% of the first class women on board), and another in which the wireless operator is shown freeing a caged bird before stepping out nobly to meet his end. Such characters are allowed a touch of nobility and poignancy because they are the innocent victims, those whose deaths, according to the film's final caption, "remain unatoned for, an eternal condemnation of England's quest for profit."

It wasn't solely its propaganda value that commended the Titanic story to German film-makers. There had already been two previous versions, a prompt 1912 adaptation called Night and Ice and of course E. A Dupont's 1929 Atlantic, an Anglo-German collaboration, filmed simultaneously in English, German and French editions. Indeed it was this familiarity that made it an ideal subject for wartime purposes.
By all accounts, director Selpin was not a passionate disciple of the Nazi cause. Sreenwriter Walter Zerlett-Olfenius most definitely was, however, and when the latter overheard the former making a few off the cuff, disparaging remarks about the German navy (who had proved uncooperative during the shooting of second unit footage on a real German liner) he reported him to the Gestapo. Selpin was arrested and charged with treason, and shortly after found dead in his cell, an apparent but by no means certain suicide. The film was completed by director Werner Klingler.

With its inevitably doom-laden atmosphere - whoever the victims and culprits - the film was judged unsatisfactory as propaganda for the home market and suppressed by Goebbels, who nonetheless attempted to recoup some of the production expense by releasing it in neutral and occupied territories.
It soon gained a reputation as an impressive piece of cinema and was reissued in 1949, receiving its German premiere in 1950. British objections to its content resulted in it being temporarily withdrawn and shorn of its inflammatory epilogue, now missing from most commonly circulating prints.  
Today, it retains its status as one of the more significant works of wartime German cinema. (It was also an obvious and unacknowledged influence on the 1997 version, which borrows a number of arbitrary plot ideas from it, as well as many of its unsavoury attitudes.)
Notwithstanding the blatant and often desperate attempts to make the story an indictment of British greed and a celebration of German heroism, the fact remains that it is an impressive and often powerful piece of work, despite conspicuous model shots. A potent atmosphere of dread is evoked throughout, as the inevitability of the ship's destruction is constantly reinforced (the better to belabour the murderous stupidity of Ismay and his collaborators). The cast, especially the women, are for the most part excellent, and there is striking work from Sybille Schmitz, distinguished veteran of Reinhardt, Pabst and Dreyer, whose willingness to work in Nazi films during the war resulted in a loss of employment subsequently, leading to her own suicide in 1955. 
Just as the Titanic herself is taken as a tragic symbol of human (or British) arrogance and hubris, so then does this particular retelling seem somehow to presage the fall and disgrace of Nazism, the very thing it was designed to endorse. 

(Tomorrow: Kate Winslet in 3-D!)