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A Forgotten Titanic

Thursday 19 April 2012

At 2:20am on April 15th 1912, two hours and forty minutes after hitting an iceberg, the RMS Titanic disappeared beneath the Atlantic Ocean, leaving in her wake the corpses of 1,514 people. A Century later, 20th Century Fox have re-released (in glorious 3D) James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster, Titanic, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, in a passionate tale of love and intrigue aboard the doomed ship.

Cameron’s film is the most well known cinematic account of the ship’s sinking, grossing nearly $2 billion to date, and catapulting its leads to stardom. Over the years, however, there have been numerous films about the disaster. The first, in fact, was released 29 days after the fact. Saved from the Titanic was released on May 14th 1912, and starred silent actress and Titanic survivor Dorothy Gibson in a fictionalised account of her experiences on the night of the sinking. Sadly, no known copies of the film remain today. It was the first of many Hollywood versions of the tale, but others followed – notably, the 1953 drama, Titanic, directed by Jean Negulesco and starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck.  The film heavily influenced Cameron’s production, which borrowed several themes and narrative elements.

Britain has had its fair share of the pie too, when it comes to Titanic movies. Roy Ward Barker’s  1958 film A Night to Remember, starring Kenneth More, Ronald Allen, Robert Ayres and Honor Blackman, is often hailed as the most accurate version of the events of the Titanic’s sinking. There are several shots in A Night to Remember, however, which were lifted from an earlier, less well known Titanic movie.

In 1940 Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Propaganda Minister, commissioned Tobis Productions to make a German movie of the sinking. The film was intended as an attack on British and American capitalism, and great liberties were taken with the plot to achieve this. The screenplay was written by Walter Zerlett-Olfenius and Herbert Selpin, the director, and tells the tale of German First Officer Herr Petersen, battling fearlessly with the British owners of the ship, whose hell-bent obsession with breaking speed records in order to boost their share profits fatally endangers the Titanic and its passengers.

Selpin’s production was vast, ambitious and spectacular. He commissioned interior sets of the ship, a 20 foot long scale model, and insisted upon a full-size ship for exterior shooting. But the shoot was beset with disaster, and sealed the fate of its director.

Goebbels requisitioned the SS Cap Arcona, a luxury liner being used as a barracks ship by the German navy, to double as the Titanic. Extras were supplied to the production from the military, but the officers were frequently drunk, and disrupted filming. In Anger and frustration, Selpin treasonously criticised the army, blaming them for the delays of shooting, before criticising the Nazi party as a whole. Outraged, the patriotic screenwriter Zerlett denounced his friend and colleague, reporting him for anti-German sentiment. Selpin was summoned to Gestapo headquarters, and placed under interrogation by Goebbels. On August 1st 1942, the day after his arrest, Selpin was found hanged in his cell at the SS Headquarters.

Werner Klinger was assigned to finish Titanic. However, by the time the film was finished, Germany’s position in the war was far less certain than when Goebbels commissioned it. When, in December 1942, he watched the finished film for the first time at a private screening in Berlin, he was horrified. The scenes of the ship’s sinking mirrored the panic on the streets of Germany’s cities, and the passengers trapped at barred stairways bore an uncanny resemblance to the concentration camps. Germany itself became synonymous with the sinking ship.  Many believe that this was no accident, but deliberate subversion on the part of Selpin.

Though the film premiered in Paris in 1943, and had a limited run in other Nazi-occupied territories, Goebbels banned Titanic from screening in Germany, and it wasn’t shown there until 1950, in a heavily edited form.

The tale of Titanic holds one last tragedy. In 1945, the SS Cap Arcona was being used as a prison ship, transporting prisoners from Neuengamme Concentration Camp. On May 3rd, the ship was bombed in an RAF raid. Though most of the Nazi crew survived and were rescued by trawlers. However, prisoners who attempted to board the boats were shot. Of the 4,500 prisoners on board, only 350 survived. Though Goebbel’s Titanic perhaps deserves to be lost the annals of history, nearly three times the number of people died in the sinking of the Cap Arcona as on the Titanic, and yet they are forgotten today.  And as for Herbert Selpin, should he not in some way be honoured for speaking out against the fascist regime who employed him.

So when you settle down this weekend to watch James Cameron’s film on the big screen, take a moment, just before you slip on your 3D glasses and immerse yourself in the romance of the fictional Jack and Rose, to remember the real people who died, not just in the first great disaster of the 20th Century on board the RMS Titanic, but all those who came after. Let April 15th be a day to remember all those, too long forgotten, who lost their lives in tragic and unjust ways in the last century.

Then pass me the popcorn…

Words: Jack Casey