Herbert Selpin’s Titanic

Before “A Night to Remember” and James Cameron’s “Titanic” there was the “Nazi Titanic.”

Herbert Selpin Titanic Scene
A scene from Herbert Selpin's Titanic (1943). Photo courtesy of Robert P. Watson.

As Adolf Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels took stock of countless films made by the German movie industry during the 1930s and ’40s, most of which displeased him for one reason or another. Herbert Selpin’s Titanic (1943) was no exception; by the time the long-delayed, big budget movie was completed it no longer reflected the reality of the war and could not be shown in German cinemas. As Peter Longerich notes in his 2015 biography “Goebbels” (Random House), producing entertaining films that were “appropriate for the present time” was an ongoing challenge for the propaganda minister. In September 1943, Goebbels asked: How “can one gear an entertainment film that was shot a year ago to the situation that exists 12 months later?” 

In part because its intended audience never had a chance to see the movie, Herbert Selpin’s Titanic (which featured the celebrated German ocean liner Cap Arcona), is one of the great failures in movie history. In the following interview—part 2 of our feature on the book The Nazi Titanic, author Robert P. Watson catalogs how, when it came to Selpin’s Titanic, “everything that could go wrong did go wrong.” (Things went especially wrong for Selpin, who was murdered by the Gestapo—for treasonous behavior—before he had the opportunity to finish the movie.)

How did Joseph Goebbels see the Titanic story as serving the Nazi cause? It seems the Nazis wanted to portray the sinking as a national disaster for Britain, and to paint the British people as corrupt and greedy and motivated only by money. 

In the script all of the British are overtly money-grubbing. The owner of the ship orders the captain to rush across the Atlantic in record time and offers to pay him a bonus for doing so. Never mind that this jeopardizes the lives of the passengers. There is also a curious German character—a junior officer—who keeps warning everyone that they are putting lives in danger and that they need to slow down. He even saves a little girl with pigtails and her puppy dog by making sure they get in a lifeboat. The film pulls on the heart strings in an over-the-top but sometimes very effective way. 

The production process for Titanic was anything but smooth. What are some of the ways that things went wrong?

The production was delayed, it went over budget, and one of the lead actresses got pregnant. Also, the director wanted to film the sinking scenes at night, but Germany was under a mandatory blackout because of Allied bombing. Nevertheless, they gave Selpin the authority to film at night. But when they were filming, the set was bombed by the Allies. Then, when the movie was finally finished [by Werner Klinger], Goebbels sat down to watch it and realized that it’s about a captain who sends innocent people to their death, and that it’s a metaphor for Nazi Germany with Hitler as captain. In the end, Goebbels banned the film from being shown in Germany.

What kind of budget did Goebbels give Titanic

He authorized a budget of four million reichsmarks [approximately $180 million in today’s dollars], and the film would remain—up until the 1960s—the most expensive movie ever made. Entire military units were re-assigned to help build the sets and to serve as passengers. Every request the director made, Hitler and Goebbels approved, and it became their baby. They both loved big ships and loved the Cap Arcona because it was a massive symbol of Nazi power and prestige. 

How did Selpin become director? He seems an odd choice, as he was not a loyal Nazi. 

Selpin was an odd choice. Most of the great German directors had either fled to America or were in a concentration camp. But Hitler and Goebbels wanted a propaganda film that looked like an action adventure-romance, and that’s what Selpin did well. And even though Selpin hated the Nazis, he was ambitious and opportunistic. It was not easy to get a big budget film during the war, and this was his chance. He jumped at the opportunity.

Ultimately, Selpin was called to Berlin for treasonous behavior. What happened?

Selpin had a larger-than-life persona. He was prickly but charismatic and demanding but talented. He also liked to drink. And the Gestapo was ever-present on the set, which he hated. One day Selpin was drinking and he “lost it.” He started cursing Nazi soldiers, the Nazi Party, and the Führer himself. That got him summoned to Berlin. There are conflicting accounts—we’ll never have the full story—but as best we can tell, Selpin was defiant when Goebbels gave him a chance to recant. So Goebbels had the police come in and take him down to the basement and the next day his body was found hanging in his jail cell. Goebbels maintained that Selpin committed suicide but Selpin’s friends insisted that he never would have killed himself. Everything points to the Gestapo killing him and then putting his suspenders around his neck to make it look like he committed suicide. 

Few people have heard about the Nazi version of Titanic. Why? 

It was shown in Paris and Prague at the end of the war but re-discovered only a few years ago.  What is most notable, perhaps, is that in the 1950s there was a great British film called A Night to Remember and some of the scenes were taken from Selpin’s Titanic. You see the Cap Arcona [at the end of A Night to Remember] and it’s haunting to see the ship.