Titanic (1943 film)

Last updated
DVD cover based on the original film poster
Directed by Herbert Selpin
Werner Klingler (uncredited)
Written by Walter Zerlett-Olfenius
Herbert Selpin
Harald Bratt (uncredited)
Hansi Köck (uncredited)
Screenplay byHerbert Selpin
Walter Zerlett-Olfenius
Produced byWilly Reiber
Starring Sybille Schmitz
Hans Nielsen
Cinematography Friedl Behn-Grund
Edited byFriedel Buckow
Music by Werner Eisbrenner
Distributed byDeutsche Filmvertriebs
Release date
  • 10 November 1943 (1943-11-10)
Running time
85 minutes
Country Germany
Language German
Budget4 million  (Approximately US$15 million in 2020 terms)

Titanic is a 1943 German propaganda film made during World War II in Berlin by Tobis Productions for UFA, depicting the catastrophic sinking of RMS Titanic in 1912. This was the third German language dramatization of the event, following a silent film released in 1912 just four months after the sinking and a British produced German film about the disaster in 1929.


Titanic was commissioned by Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels with the intent of showing not only the superiority of German filmmaking, but also as a propaganda vehicle which would depict British and American capitalism as being responsible for the disaster. The addition of an entirely fictional heroic German officer, Petersen, to the ship's crew was intended to demonstrate the superior bravery and selflessness of German men as compared to the British officers.

The film's original director, Herbert Selpin, was arrested during production after making disparaging comments about the German army and the war in the east. He was found hanged in prison, and the film was completed by Werner Klingler, who was not credited.

Although the film had a brief theatrical run in parts of German-occupied Europe starting in November 1943, it was not shown within Germany by order of Goebbels, who feared that it would weaken the German citizenry's morale instead of improving it, as heavy Allied bombing raids made a film depicting mass panic and death unappealing. Goebbels later banned the playing of the film entirely, and it did not have a second run.

The film was the first on the subject which was simply titled Titanic, and the first to combine various fictional characters and subplots with the true events of the sinking; both conventions went on to become a staple of Titanic films. [1]


At a shareholder meeting, the president of the Line, White Star Line, J. Bruce Ismay (E.F. Fürbringer), reminds stockholders that the share price is falling, and that nothing can be done about it. This prompts many stockholders to sell their shares. Later, at a private meeting with members of the board, Ismay promises to reveal a secret during the maiden voyage of the Line's new RMS Titanic that will change that. He encourages the board to sell their shares so that they can buy it back cheaply when his secret is revealed and the share prices increase again. Later, on the Titanic, it is revealed that he believes that when the ship breaks the speed record, this will raise the stock's value. When Ismay reveals his secret at the opening dinner, the board realizes what he had in mind, and rushes off to the telegraph office to buy shares.

The next morning, the news is not good: Ismay's gamble did not pay off, and the share price is still dropping. He tries to calm the board by saying that the share prices are bound to go up once the Titanic wins the Blue Riband, and tells them that he suspects foul play. Ismay reveals to his fiancé that he had shorted the stock by borrowing millions of pounds privately. In the meantime, the telegraph officer reveals to Astor's assistant (Hopkins) that Ismay had been very eager to learn what the stock prices were, and this makes Astor realize that Ismay had tried. He decides to set a plan of his own in motion to drive the stock price even lower once they reach New York, in order to obtain a larger share of the Line.

First Officer Petersen (Hans Nielsen), the sole German crew member on board, begs Ismay to slow the ship while sailing through ice-infested North Atlantic waters. Ismay refuses and orders Captain Smith (Otto Wernicke) to keep up the vessel's record-breaking speed. An iceberg is sighted, but the search light's filaments break and there are no spare filaments on board. Shortly thereafter, Titanic hits the iceberg and begins to sink.

The passengers in First Class act like cowards, while Petersen, his Russian aristocrat ex-lover Sigrid Olinsky (Sybille Schmitz), and several German passengers in steerage behave bravely and with dignity.

With Sigrid's assistance, Petersen manages to rescue many passengers before convincing her to board one of the last lifeboats. He then arranges a seat for Ismay in order for him to stand trial for causing the disaster. As the water ravages through the ship, Petersen finds a young girl who was abandoned in her cabin by her parents. Petersen jumps into the water with the girl in his arms and is pulled aboard Sigrid's lifeboat, where the two are reunited. The occupants then watch in horror as Titanic plunges beneath the waves.

At the British Inquiry into the disaster, Petersen testifies against Ismay, condemning his actions, but Ismay is cleared of all charges and the blame is placed squarely on the deceased Captain Smith's shoulders. An epilogue states (in German): "The deaths of 1,500 people remained unpunished, an eternal condemnation of England's profiteering."



The script was adapted from a popular German novel by Josef Pelz von Felinau, although he remained uncredited in the finished film. After the Propaganda Ministry gave final script approval in March 1942, shooting of interior scenes began shortly thereafter at Tobis Film's Johannisthal Studios in Berlin. Beginning in May, 1942, exterior scenes were shot at the German-occupied Polish Baltic Sea port of Gdynia (renamed Gotenhafen), on board SS Cap Arcona, a passenger liner that eventually shared Titanic's fate; it was sunk a few days before the end of World War II by the Royal Air Force on May 3, 1945, with loss of life more than three times than that on the actual Titanic. The ship had been turned into a prison ship and filled with inmates that, according to one hypothesis, the Nazis had put there in hopes that the ship would be destroyed by the Allies. [upper-alpha 1] The scenes with the lifeboats were also filmed on the Baltic Sea.

Titanic endured many production difficulties, including a clash of egos, massive creative differences and general war-time frustrations. As filming progressed, more extravagant sets were demanded by Selpin, as well as additional resources from the German Navy – these demands were all approved by Goebbels, despite the mounting costs and the drain on the wartime German economy. [5]

After one week of troubled shooting on Cap Arcona, with Allies bombing raids occurring not far away, [5] Herbert Selpin called a crisis meeting where he made unflattering comments about the Kriegsmarine officers who were supposed to be marine consultants for the film, but were more interested in molesting female cast members. [6] Selpin's close friend and the co-writer of the script, Walter Zerlett-Olfenius, reported him to the Gestapo, and Selpin was promptly arrested and personally questioned by Joseph Goebbels, who was the driving force behind the Titanic project. Selpin, however, did not retract his statement – infuriating Goebbels, since the Propaganda Minister had personally chosen Selpin to direct his propaganda epic. Within 24 hours of his arrest, Selpin was found hanged in his jail cell, which was ruled a suicide. [7] It has been claimed that Selpin was killed on Goebbels' orders. [8] The cast and crew were angered by Selpin's death and attempted to retaliate, but Goebbels countered them by issuing a proclamation stating that anyone who shunned Zerlett-Olfenius, who had reported Selpin, would answer to him personally. [8] The unfinished film, on which the production costs were spiralling wildly out of control, was in the end completed by an uncredited Werner Klingler.

The film cost almost 4 million  (equivalent to roughly US$15 million in 2020 terms), although various sources have erroneously propagated an inflation-adjusted figure as high as $180 million. [9] [10] Regardless, it was the most expensive German production to that point. [11]

Themes and propaganda context

The faults of capitalism and the stock market play a dominant role throughout the film. Titanic makes the allegory of the liner's loss specifically about British "avarice" rather than, as most retellings do, about "hubris". This fits in with other works of anti-British propaganda of the time such as The Maiden Joanna (1935), The Heart of a Queen (1940), The Fox of Glenarvon (1940), Uncle Krüger (1941), and My Life for Ireland (1941).

The epilogue at the end of the film unambiguously underscored the intent of the filmmakers:

"Der Tod von 1500 Menschen blieb ungesühnt, eine ewige Anklage gegen Englands Gewinnsucht."
("The deaths of 1,500 people remain un-atoned, an eternal condemnation of England's endless quest for profit.")

Undermining the intended effect were the scenes of British and French passengers in a state of panic and desperation. Scenes of steerage passengers separated by crew members and desperately searching for their loved ones through locked gates and a chain link fence bore an uncanny resemblance to what was happening in German extermination camps during that time. This contributed to the film being banned by Goebbels inside Germany. [12]


Titanic was to premiere in early 1943, but the theatre that housed the answer print was bombed by Royal Air Force planes the night before. The film went on to have a respectable premiere in Paris in November 1943 "where it was surprisingly well-received by its audience", [8] and also played well in some other capital cities of Nazi-occupied Europe such as Prague. But Goebbels banned its playing in Germany altogether, stating that the German people – who were at that point going through almost nightly Allied bombing raids – were less than enthusiastic about seeing a film that portrayed mass death and panic. [12] [3] [5] The Nazi leadership was also displeased with the manner in which the fictional character Petersen critiqued his superiors, which they regarded to be at odds with the Führerprinzip which demanded Germans unquestioningly obey the orders of their superiors.

Re-release and censorship

Shortly after the war, Titanic (dubbed into Russian and with the opening credits removed to hide its origin) was screened across the Eastern Bloc as its anti-capitalist propaganda message was considered ideologically sound. The film was later reissued in 1949 but was quickly banned in most Allied-occupied territories until a censored version, deleting the final scene at the inquiry and several other moments of overt anti-British propaganda, was approved for distribution in West Germany. After the 1950s, Titanic went back into obscurity, sometimes showing on European television. A VHS of the censored version was released in Germany in 1992 and the same version was later released on DVD in Germany and Italy. The uncut version of Titanic was restored by Kino Video in 2005 and subsequently released on DVD and VHS. A Blu-ray release followed in 2017. The uncut version was not available outside North America until 2019, when it was released on Blu-ray in Germany by LEONINE Films.


A Night to Remember

Four clips from the film were reused in the critically acclaimed 1958 British film A Night to Remember : two of the ship sailing in calm waters during the day, and two brief clips of a flooding walkway in the engine room. [13]

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Explanatory notes

  1. The British documentary hypothesizes that the inmates were placed onto Cap Arcona as part of a larger plot to hide the living evidence of the concentration camp survivors, and to entrap the Allies into bombing the ship. "Tragically, the SS Cap Arcona was carrying around 5,500 concentration camp inmates at the time, most of whom died in the attack. They were mainly prisoners who had been held in various concentration camps in Germany, and who were being deported as the Allied invasion drew closer. More people died in this disaster than the roughly 1,500 persons who died in the actual Titanic sinking in 1912." [3] [4]


  1. Fiebing, Malte (2012). 'Titanic: Nazi Germany's Version of the Disaster. p. 127. ISBN   9783844824261 . Retrieved July 27, 2020.
  2. "Titanic | Deutschland 1942/1943, Spielfilm". filmportal.de (in German). Deutschen Filminstituts. Retrieved 2016-09-17.
  3. 1 2 3 Marszal, Andrew (2012-03-05). "The strange sinking of the Nazi Titanic". The Telegraph . Retrieved 2015-11-15.
  4. 1 2 Zendran, David (2012-05-21). "Nazi Titanic Revealed" (Video). History Channel. YouTube
  5. 1 2 3 Dunbar, John N. (2014) A Critical History of History in Moving Pictures. Author House. pp. 389–91. ISBN   978-1491868720
  6. Mcgue, Kevin (2012-04-10). "The Titanic on Film". A Life At The Movies.
  7. Romani 1992, p. 71.
  8. 1 2 3 Brian Hawkins (2012-04-14). "The Titanic's last victim". National Post. Retrieved 2018-08-27.
  9. Lebovic, Matt. "Goebbels' 'Titanic' cinematic disaster turns 70". www.timesofisrael.com. Retrieved 2020-12-16.
  10. "Nazi Titanic: That Time the Nazis Made a $180 Million Propaganda Film". TheWrap. 2018-07-21. Retrieved 2020-12-16.
  11. Grace, Michael L. "James Cameron Stole Ideas From 1943 Nazi TITANIC Film For His Own Blockbuster Version!". THE PAST AND NOW | News, Travel & Social History. Retrieved 2020-12-16.
  12. 1 2 Romani 1992, p. 69.
  13. "Matte Shot: a Tribute to Golden Era special fx". 2011-05-26. Retrieved 2011-05-26.