Published Oct. 29, 2017 for the film’s Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber Studio Classics.
1943 Films Says More About the Makers Than the 1912 Disaster
DIRECTORS: WERNER KLINGER AND HERBERT SELPIN/GERMAN/1943
STREET DATE: OCTOBER 17, 2017/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
Do I need to explain the events on the RMS Titanic in 1912? If “big boat hits an iceberg, sinks, and a bunch of people die” doesn’t jog your memory, I’m sure Wikipedia has a nice summary for you.
For the other 99% who covered it in history class, the 1943 German film Titanic covers all the major plot points, and if you’ve seen James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster, it’s impossible not to compare the two. Between the identical sets and repeated beats (e.g. identifying the wealthiest passengers as they enter, using an emergency axe to free trapped Third Class travelers), the similarities are striking.
Then again, the German version makes the American one’s dialogue and message feel subtle, which is maybe the first time that’s ever been said about a James Cameron film. Because of the much shorter run time and the limitations of the time period, this Titanic lacks both the scale and the details to feel as convincing. The film weaves in and out on too many characters to go into depth with any of them, almost like a disaster version of Valentine’s Day, but it also misses the big picture.
The hero of the film is the German Officer Petersen (Hans Nielsen). He’s the only one who recommends slowing the ship because he’s apparently the only one who knows anything about icebergs, but he faces discrimination from the American and British leadership and the First Class travelers. Captain Edward J. Smith (Otto Wernicke) and Chairman Sir Bruce Ismay (Ernst Fritz Fürbringer) ignore his pleas for a more cautious voyage because they’re concerned about making headlines with an early arrival and conniving to drive up the White Star Line stock. In the court’s inquiries after the sinking, Petersen’s testimony against Ismay is overruled because of his influence.
Because of its realism in the last act, Germany didn’t let the film release until after the war was over, and modern audiences won’t lose the sensation even with the dated special effects.
As if the film’s politics weren’t already as glaring as the emergency flares the crew sent to the skies, the film ends with the title card, “The deaths of 1500 people remain unatoned for, an eternal condemnation of England’s quest for profit.” The accusation rings hollow when you remember the Germans were exterminating 6 million people at the time they made this movie.
Where this movie excels is in the disaster, and what a disaster it is. The film finds its energy in the scenes of the delayed alarm, hysterical terror, and despondent resignation of our named and unnamed characters. Because of its realism in the last act, Germany didn’t let the film release until after the war was over, and modern audiences won’t lose the sensation even with the dated special effects.
Special Blu-ray features include commentary, a trailer, a 1912 newsreel about the sinking, and a White Star Line film about the Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic.
The images in this review are not representative of the actual Blu-ray’s image quality and are included only to represent the film itself.