The story of the sinking of the luxury liner the Titanic in 1912 is one that seems to hold some kind of hypnotic grasp on filmmakers. It has been the subject of innumerable movies and television shows, culminating in the unaccountably popular multi-Oscar winning film directed-for lack of a better word-by James Cameron. One version that is little known and even more rarely seen will be airing on Turner Classic Movies in the wee hours between Sunday night and Monday morning. Produced at the height of World War II, it is interesting mostly as an artifact of Nazi propaganda film. Enjoying it on any other level requires a suspension of knowledge of film. To put it bluntly, as an exercise in pure cinema this Titanic makes James Cameron’s Titanic truly appear deserving of its motherlode of Academy Awards.
Not that the Nazi version of Titanic doesn’t have some things to recommend it. It is particularly enjoyable for the way it blames the White Star cruise line owners for effectively causing the ship to hit an iceberg as they pushed the captain to beat a world speed record. This allegation has been made elsewhere and equally so has it been refuted many times. Who knows? Things begin slipping mightily from that point, however. This is Nazi propaganda, after all, so it will probably come as no surprise to find that the only admirable character in the film is a German sailor. In addition to the White Star cruise boys, John Jacob Astor comes off particularly bad. He’s almost as unrealistic a devil as Billy Zane in Cameron’s version; this, of course, is completely at odds with all written records that indicate that Astor behaved like anything from an angel sent on high to simply accepting his fate in a stoic manner.
As an adventure movie, the Nazi Titanic falls quite short. However, it will make you appreciate James Cameron’s superior ability to manipulate the audience. Like Cameron, the Nazi Titanic’s director suddenly introduces characters from out of nowhere meant to pull at your heartstrings as death approaches. At least Cameron knows how to combine music and editing to manipulate your emotions.
Still, the actual sinking of the Nazi Titanic really isn’t all that less impressive than Cameron’s, despite the latter’s hundreds of millions in budget. Okay, not really. The sinking of the Titanic in this version is laughable, even more so than Cameron’s. But this is supposed to be propaganda, not entertainment, after all. And on that score, I suppose it hits a bull’s eye. The British are all portrayed as evil and it is the good German who tries to help the unfortunate, such as they are. One last thing about this Nazi Titanic, and I really don’t mean to be sound catty or mean, but just to state a simple fact. Apparently, all the pretty female movie stars in Germany at the time must have been Jewish, or gay or Polish or gypsies or something because I’ve never seen so many truly ugly women in one movie in all my life. This is really distracting because one of the main characters is supposed to be this really great beauty and frankly she looks like a transvestite who came in last in a She-Male Illusion contest.
One other thing distracting about the Nazi Titanic has to do with something I’ve always wondered about. I’ve always wondered how foreigners feel when watching an American movie that takes place in a foreign country but is acted by American movie stars spouting English dialogue. It’s quite disconcerting to listen to German coming out of these supposedly British characters.
If you get a chance TiVo the Nazi Titanic tomorrow night. It’s not great moviemaking, to be sure, but it does offer a little slice of international cinema rarely seen and, frankly, it will become even rarer despite the introduction of those 500 channels that were supposed to open up a universe of narrowcasting.