Titanic: The Nazis Create a Mega-Budget Propaganda Film About the Ill-Fated Ship … and Then Banned It (1943)

James Cameron’s Titan­ic appeared in 1997 as the most expen­sive film ever made. Wern­er Klin­gler and Her­bert Selpin’s Titan­ic appeared in 1943 as the most expen­sive Ger­man film ever made. And the two share even more than their bud­gets’ record-break­ing sta­tus, their famous­ly “unsink­able” sub­ject, and their title in com­mon: both endured trou­bled pro­duc­tions, both fea­ture a late scene where their male hero con­vinces his lover to just get on a lifeboat already, and both set out to make strong state­ments indeed. The lat­er, Amer­i­can Titan­ic has much to say about the cin­e­mat­ic tri­umph of late-20th-cen­tu­ry visu­al effects, where­as the ear­li­er, Ger­man Titan­ic takes a more neg­a­tive tack, mount­ing an indict­ment of the sup­pos­ed­ly sav­age avarice and thor­ough cor­rup­tion of that coun­try’s bit­ter wartime ene­my, Great Britain. In its ill-fat­ed tit­u­lar ship, the huge-scale pro­pa­gan­da film found what must have seemed like the per­fect­ly opu­lent illus­tra­tion of its argu­ment.

But things worked out no bet­ter for this Titan­ic than for the actu­al Titan­ic — and indeed, for Ger­many in the Sec­ond World War. “Nev­er shown in Nazi Ger­many, its direc­tor was found hanged  by his own braces and is sus­pect­ed of hav­ing been mur­dered by the Gestapo,” writes David Ger­rie in the Dai­ly Mail. “And the ship that took the role of the Titan­ic, the Cap Arcona, was lat­er sunk with 5,000 con­cen­tra­tion camp pris­on­ers on board, a vast­ly greater loss of life than the 1,517 who died in the Titan­ic dis­as­ter.” For all the time, ener­gy, and mon­ey the regime piled into it, the film turned out “far from the mas­ter­piece [Nazi Min­is­ter of Pro­pa­gan­da Joseph] Goebbels had wait­ed two years to see. Fear­ing Nazi cit­i­zens under attack by Allied bombers would be fright­ened by the sink­ing, he banned its release in Ger­many.” Just as Cameron’s Titan­ic shocked the indus­try-watch­ers who had solemn­ly pre­dict­ed a megaflop by cre­at­ing one of the most suc­cess­ful movies of all time, Klin­gler and Selpin’s Titan­ic must have giv­en the Nazis quite a start when it emerged as a tes­ta­ment not to Britain’s hubris, but, inad­ver­tent­ly, to their own.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Lam­beth Walk—Nazi Style: The Ear­ly Pro­pa­gan­da Mash Up That Enraged Joseph Goebbels

The Nazi’s Philis­tine Grudge Against Abstract Art and The “Degen­er­ate Art Exhi­bi­tion” of 1937

Don­ald Duck’s Bad Nazi Dream and Four Oth­er Dis­ney Pro­pa­gan­da Car­toons from World War II

“The Duck­ta­tors”: Loony Tunes Turns Ani­ma­tion into Wartime Pro­pa­gan­da (1942)

The Nazis’ 10 Con­trol-Freak Rules for Jazz Per­form­ers: A Strange List from World War II

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (3)
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  • Rolta says:

    No, you mean Ger­many’s bit­ter wartime ene­my, the Unit­ed King­dom, or, the British Empire, not Great Britain. Great Britain is an island, not a coun­try. Grrr. I think this is one of the most com­mon every­day mis­takes.

    It’s no sur­prise when even the British olympic team, which should be Team UK, is called Team GB. Peo­ple from the UK are British, but not every­one from the UK lives on Great Britain as there is also North­ern Ire­land and all the many islands sur­round­ing the island of Great Britain. This was a poor­ly struc­tured rant, but right.

  • RB says:

    Excel­lent film. This is the best ver­sion of Titan­ic I have ever seen; unlike the roman­ti­cized clap­trap of Hol­ly­wood, this film cor­rect­ly empha­sizes the true rea­sons for the dis­as­ter of the Titan­ic: the greed of the upper class aris­toc­ra­cy of the gild­ed age.

  • bennie says:

    Iloved this movie…

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