Nazi Titanic reveals Goebbels' big budget bid to create blockbuster propaganda movie
A new book sheds fresh light on the Nazis’ disastrous attempt to produce the ultimate propaganda movie about the sinking of the Titanic.
“The Nazi Titanic”, by Robert P Watson, also tells of how the ship that stood in for the Belfast-built luxury liner in the film suffered a similar fate to the ‘unsinkable’ White Star vessel that perished in 1912 with the loss of over 1500 lives.
Like its 1997 James Cameron-directed namesake, ‘Titanic’ was one of the most expensive cinematic productions ever, and was plagued by set problems and cost overruns.
It was driven by the German propaganda chief and movie buff Joseph Goebbels, who ran a Nazi film department in the early Thirties, after he seized on a script from German screenwriter Harald Bratt, which blamed Britain for the Titanic disaster.
Goebbels hired Herbert Selpin to direct the film and production began in September 1941.
Titanic’s fictional hero was a “brave German” named Petersen, the “lone German among the all-English crew” and, coincidentally, the only one with the foresight and compassion to place safety over profit.
Goebbels gave the film a huge budget, equivalent to £125m today, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy Selpin’s “outrageous demands” for massive sets, the reassigning of soldiers from the war to serve as extras and a replica of the Titanic that needed 25 trucks to transport it to the lake where the sinking would be shot.
When the model ship failed to live up to expectations, the director made “his most outlandish demand yet; a full-size luxury ocean liner as a stand-in for the Titanic.”
Goebbels ordered the Ministry of Propaganda to find a suitable ship and they came up with the Cap Arcona.
Built in 1927, it had been Germany’s attempt to build a vessel as big and luxurious as the Titanic.
The Cap Arcona had carried wealthy passengers to South America until the war, when it became a barracks and training school.
Under Goebbels’ orders, it was to be restored to its former glory, but persistent delays culminated in an incident in May 1942, when the director snapped, calling elements of the Nazi war machine “cowardly and pathetic”.
He was arrested and charged with treason and disloyalty – and strangled to death in his cell by two guards.
Goebbels hired a replacement to finish the film, which was completed in October 1942 and ran just under 90 minutes long.
But when he saw the finished film, he also became aware of an embarrassing irony.
“Goebbels realized the entire project was a catastrophic mistakes, as it was a film about helpless people on a sinking ship commandeered by a foolish leader that mirrored the situation in Germany,” Watson wrote.
Goebbels initially banned the film but relented the following year to allow it to be shown outside Germany, where it became a smash hit.
Still, following those limited runs, he ordered the film locked away. Other than a brief release in West Germany in 1955, it was forgotten until 2005, when it was rediscovered, restored and re-released.
The Cap Arcona, meanwhile, came to an horrific end on May 3 1945 - three days after Hitler’s suicide and only one day before the unconditional surrender of German troops.
The Nazis had turned it into a floating concentration camp and had planned to destroy the ship and everyone on board but, instead, the RAF inadvertently did it for them. Of the 5,000 on board, only 350 survived.