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December 19, 2005

That's (German) Entertainment!

Titanic
Herbert Selpin - 1943
Kino Video Region 1 DVD

Munchausen
Josef von Baky - 1943
Kino Video Region 1 DVD

I finally got around to seeing these two movies after reading about them several months ago. I was frankly pretty curious as to what the state of German filmmaking was like as well as what kind of propaganda would be in these films. It should be no more surprising that big budget entertainment would be produced in Germany in 1943, than in the U.S., the year of Shadow of a Doubt and Heaven Can Wait. Both films could not avoid being affected by Nazi policies in different ways.

While the essential history of the ship Titanic is well known, it still interesting to see how differently the story is told. Alfred Hitchcock was suppose to do a version as his first film for David O. Selznick, but for technical and budgetary reasons ended up doing the landlocked Rebecca instead. E. A. Dupont actually shot three versions of the Titanic story in 1929 - German, English and silent. The Nazi high command was supposed to have loved film, yet I would think that if they had seen Dupont's film, and thought about history, they would not have gone ahead with the creation of their own oversized ship. If the 1943 German version blames the catastrophe of the Titanic on British greed and speed, one could say that the British got their cinematic revenge seventeen years later.

At eighty-five minutes, this Titanic is less than half the running time of James Cameron's version, and there's no Celine Dion wailing at the end. A good part of the film is devoted to White Line President Bruce Ismay trying to manipulate While Line stocks to his advantage prior to the launching of the Titanic and while on the ill-fated voyage. The one German officer on the ship, Petersen, attempts to tell anyone who will listen that there may be a problem with possible icebergs. As if that wasn't enough, Petersen (Hans Nielsen) has his own love problems with an independently wealthy woman (Sybille Schmitz). There is also a subplot involving a young couple who meet cute, Monika Burg playing Ann Dvorak to Hermann Brix's Dick Powell. Had this been a Hollywood production, the role of the hot, garter displaying dancer in steerage would have probably been played by Rita Hayworth. Titanic features the one-time performance by Jolly Bohnert as the temptress men fight over. As it turned out, director Herbert Selpin was arrested by the Gestapo before completing the film, and died in prison. Selpin's crime was that he was overheard complaining about the German army which had caused a slowdown of second unit photography. The film was completed by Werner Klinger. Goebbels subsequently banned the film officially because of the scenes of shipboard panic. Titanic was seen in Germany after World War II after thought to have been lost. While there may be argument on which is the best version of the sinking of the Titanic, this German version offers its own particular pleasures.

The 1943 version of Munchausen also offers pleasures as well. In this case, Goebbels looked the other way after being convinced that Erich Kastner was the only writer capable of writing the screenplay. The film was also legendary German production company UFA's 25th anniversary celebration of itself, a means of showing to German's, and the rest of the world, that the Third Reich could equal Hollywood. The film isn't quite the special effects extravaganza of Terry Gilliam's Adventures of Baron Munchausen. This film about the fabulous 18th century liar is striking in other ways, primarily in it's raciness. This Munchausen is such a ladies' man that even Casanova is jealous. A scene with Brigitte Horney as a Russian princess scampering in her royal underwear was surprising. A later sequence in Turkey resembles nothing less than an Arabian nights fantasy from Universal, only with three times the extras for the exteriors, and lots of topless starlets. (Thank goodness for the ability to freeze frame.)

If Americans are familiar with Erich Kastner at all, it's as the author of Emil and the Detectives. Ideally more of his literature and films would be available. Director von Baky and Kastner collaborated again in 1950 on the film Das Doppelte Lottchen. The story is much better known in the Walt Disney version(s), The Parent Trap.

Kastner also was a poet. Most of his writings are currently unavailable in English, so to make up for this gap, I will share a short poem from the anthology, Let's Face It.

The Light-hearted Muse

Slick art;
Sick art.
Pure art:
Poor art.

Posted by peter at December 19, 2005 01:46 PM