Monday, May 28, 2007
Disaster Flicks: History Repeating
Netflix has brought another surprise, and therefore the potential for another roughly-written tangent. This time, it's the 1942 German movie Titanic. Precursor to the 1958 film A Night to Remember, and of course, that movie in which Celine Dion's heart will "go on." There's an obsession with what many still see as the worst maritime disaster in history. I remember, in Los Angeles, sneaking on board the Queen Mary after dark and roaming the decks. On the First Class deck were others within earshot who were legitimate guests in the onboard hotel. I ignored them at first, but then in listening, found that they were talking about the Queen Mary as if it was the Titanic, as if they had found themselves in a museum replica, or the ship itself as it was in the movie not yet released on video at the time: "Here's where they shot at each other as the water rose. Here are the staterooms where she must've slept."
Like Erin, I somehow am programmed to think that a new Netflix DVD is a "drop everything and watch this" priority, so I plugged it right in. As far as movies go, it isn't all that great, and it has less than sincere interest regarding period accuracy in costume or setting. The women's evening dresses look like they were from various contemporary productions of other movies--they certainly weren't what high society wore aboard ship in the years before the Great War. The set was improvised as well, with the location footage shot aboard a German liner, the Cap Arcona (below), the interior of which bears at best only the slightest suggestion of the Titanic's style. The movie shows its wartime politics fairly straightforwardly, pointing the finger of blame squarely at Bruce Ismay's--and especially British Business's--blind pursuit of money. The one German member of the crew (a fabrication) is the only person who realizes the corruption and appreciates the danger, but the wily Britons bring ethnicity and politics into the argument, quashing the officer's protests, saying that a German, obviously loyal above all to his own country, would do anything to keep Britain from breaking a transatlantic speed record. From that point, the rest can probably guess what happens. We all know about the shortsightedness regarding the lifeboats. There are moments that give one the suspicion that Cameron borrowed scenes from this film to add to his own--the raucous steerage dancing scene (here given a rather nipply treatment by a woman really named Jolly Maree in the credits), the intrigues and wranglings of the amazingly wealthy louts in First Class also get quite a bit of attention. There even is a scene where someone is locked in a room filling with water belowdecks which can't help but remind viewers of Cameron's movie. And there is a "blue diamond." But all of this falls away when one gets back to the ship used to shoot the scenes.
The Cap Arcona was a luxury liner that made the route to South America. By the time of the film's production, the ship had been sitting in Lubeck bay; the war made such a ship quite a target. For two years it had been a floating barracks, and Navy Kriegsmarine extras were used in the movie. As the war wore on, the ship became a part of the Final Solution, where thousands of prisoners from Neuengamme camp were marched to the ship and crammed on board. Lifeboats certainly were not a concern here, either. The British unwittingly contributed, spotting the ship on an air raid and not knowing who was aboard, bombed it. It burned and sank where it sat. For the Titanic, Leo DiCaprio represented one of the 1,502 dead. For the Cap Arcona, a smaller ship made to carry 1,300, no one's yet made the attempt to portray one of the over 5,000 who weren't rescued. In the movie, the ship goes down in miniature, the doll's house furniture swirling around the tiny stiff plastic potted palms. The footage has more screaming and chaos on deck than ever was reported by the Titanic's survivors; more a rehearsal of what would happen on that same deck less than three years later; the portrayal of a doomed ship on a doomed ship.