Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Titanic Week, 5: Filming the unfilmable

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

In Nacht und Eis (Night and Ice, 1912) did not appear with quite the haste of our previous film, Saved From the Titanic, though it did reach screens just before the end of 1912, making it the earliest completely surviving Titanic movie.

It's also a lot more ambitious than Saved, which had squeezed a precis of the events into just one reel, whereas Night and Ice lasts four reels and is quite an ambitious production for its time. Viewed today, though its effects no longer suspend audience disbelief to the degree they must once have done, the film nonetheless seems fascinating in other ways that would not have seemed remarkable to original audiences, and the mere fact that the actors are simulating events that had happened earlier that same year gives it a weird kind of authenticity belied by other elements of the production.

The other interesting thing to note about it is that it's German. I'm not sure if there is a reason why German cinema was so transfixed by the story, but this is the first of three major German productions (with Atlantic following in 1929 and the already-discussed Titanic in 1943).
It is certainly worth noting that there is not  a trace of the anti-English establishment mood, class obsession or blame-pointing that characterises most later versions, most notoriously, of course, the Nazi production of 1943. The crew are portrayed as uniformly heroic, with Captain Smith even shown dragging a survivor over to a lifeboat and then refusing the offer to climb on board himself.

Nonetheless, the film does not have narrative or characters as such, rather it strives to recreate snapshots of the story in a documentary manner. A series of linked sequences show the ship embarking on its journey, various scenes of life on board, then the collision, immediate aftermath and sinking.
The early, pre-disaster sequences have an authentic feel of newsreel reportage that would today be considered postmodern - a fake documentary newsreel! - but is in fact entirely organic. The untrained actors boarding the ship, unfamiliar with the processes of moviemaking, repeatedly look at the camera and assume that slightly selfconscious manner so familiar from early newsreels, and the effect is flawless. These scenes could easily pass for genuine newsreel sequences, but the effect is entirely unstudied and accidental: unfamiliarity creating the exact same results as extreme knowingness.
The documentary feel is further sustained by the captions, which describe characters rather than name them, and are also pre-emptive, for example: "The captain hands over the sentry to his first officer, who drowned later", and "A famous billionaire (in front with slouch hat) goes aboard with his young wife. The woman was rescued but her husband drowned..."
With one exception, the captions are never used to relay dialogue, even though the characters are shown talking to each other in a number of sequences.

The patchwork production was shot in a number of locations, and mixes studio interiors with shots taken on a German liner then docked in Hamburg. A relatively small cast was used, doubling up in various roles, a fact that becomes especially obvious after the iceberg strikes, and we see small groups of people running in panic along otherwise deserted decks.
A rocking platform beneath the interior sets is used to simulate the listing of the stricken ship (this is presumably why what are repeatedly referred to as luxury suites and dining rooms are so cramped and tight in their composition), and the hoses of the Berlin fire brigade can be seen helping to create the effect of the flooding wireless room.
The tilted platform is effectively deployed after the iceberg strikes, but somewhat lessened in effectiveness by having already been used in earlier scenes to simulate a gentle rocking motion, even in interiors. This effect, which does not duplicate the physical experience of being inside a ship, has not become a standard convention of film grammar, and looks bizarre today. On the other hand, it is interesting to see the nonsensical cinematic convention of conveying the view through binoculars via an image shaped like two overlapping circles instead of one is already in place here.

The long shot exteriors, showing the ship cruising along, hitting the iceberg and sinking were achieved with the use of extremely small models, a fact betrayed most obviously during the sinking by the wild bobbing of the even smaller lifeboats. The ship is also shown violently tilting the second it strikes the iceberg.
These moments seem naive to us, but it doesn't take much imagination - or perhaps it does, but it shouldn't - to see how effective this would have seemed to filmgoers of an age at once less cynical, less demanding, and vastly less acquainted with cinema's ability to recreate the unimaginable.