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A Mountain of a Ship

Locating the Bergfilm in James Cameron's Titanic

by Robert von Dassanowsky,
first published in Cinema Journal
(issue 40:4, Summer 2001)

Back to Main Page for Tiefland


An examination of James Cameron's Titanic (1997) reveals its structural and narrative roots in the German Bergfilm genre and strong relationship to Leni Riefenstahl's Tiefland (1945-1954). The popular appeal of Titanic's Bergfilm message suggests gender-role repression and a postmodern American correspondence to the social conditions of Weimar Germany.

Like the phenomenon surrounding the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in August 1997, which Hans Magnus Enzensberger has called "the first virtual tragedy," 1   the phenomenon of that year's international blockbuster film, Titanic, will no doubt become the subject of much critical scrutiny once its vast popularity has diminished. Just as the late princess has been compared with everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Mother Teresa, the film has been ranked alongside Gone with the Wind (1939) in a field of overused superlatives. On reflection, Titanic will no doubt be viewed as a collection of reused parts that amount to far more than the politically correct whole. For rather than something "new," Titanic is a revisitation of sociocultural and cinematic statements concerned with the alienation brought on by the simultaneously positive and negative modernism of the twentieth century.

The parables of the Lady and the Ship — Princess Diana's death and James Cameron's Titanic — appear to have filled the need for mass ritual and emotional fulfillment in a period of relative aimlessness: the ideological vacuum of post-Cold War civilization, heightened by fin-de-siècle panic and by what Umberto Eco calls a postmodern "crisis of reason." 2  Both parables focus on an icon of the he repressed woman in a period when feminism has faded from popular thought and pundits claim that either a "feminized" world has already taken root or sexual equality is no longer an issue. Nevertheless, these reactions to the power, cynicism, even negativity of the impersonal cyber-virtual world of the 1990s are themselves illusory: Princess Diana was nothing less than a shrewd manipulator of the image she helped cultivate with the international media, and Titanic is less a film of narrative originality than one of cutting-edge technological entertainment. Both were created with such media savvy as to almost belie their messages. But what are those messages?

Both the romantic tragedy of Diana and the one told in Cameron's Titanic portray women in sociocultural crisis through anachronisms: Diana as aristocrat and once-future queen in a largely republican world; the female population of the Titanic locked in an elitist and sham-genteel society. Both parables tell us that women were more repressed and oppressed in the past but that those times were somehow more human and idealistic — therefore more was possible.

A class-based society, as suggested through Diana's persona or Titanic's set pieces, despite its rabid inequality, also offers escapism, albeit a retrograde one, from the dumbing down of today's socioculture with its faceless bar codes and vague email identities. Princess Diana was a living being, but her blend of anachronistic privilege and misery, charity interests and eating disorders, made her life and times cinematic. Titanic is a cinematic construct that has taken on the cachet of a lived experience, of a historic milestone, not for its recreation of the sea disaster but for the experience of its central female character and her relationship with the two men who desire her. The worship of the film by young women should set off alarms across contemporary cultural and sociological scholarship.

For what state of affairs is evoked when relatively sophisticated, often highly technological young women in 1997 ritualize the screenings, identify with an oppressed and abused female character from 1912, and achieve transcendence in vicarious love for an androgynous man-child? An answer has been suggested by Deborah L. Rhode in her book Speaking of Sex. Rhode underscores that despite progress, American culture — especially politically correct media imagery and attitude — still denies, discounts, or manages to justify gender inequality. 3  Have a substantial portion of women's strides been illusory? Has Western society changed, marched ahead with the woman at relatively the same space behind the man as she was at the start of this century?

Those who might claim there has been a substantial, even an overplayed, "feminization" of America might point to Titanic as an example of such a sensitive world. But audience reaction rejects such a claim. The young women in the audience tossing off imitation blue diamond pendants (which flooded the marketplace) in emulation of Titanic's heroine bring to mind the cultish expansion of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) into audience participation, complete with sing-alongs, costumes, and audience response. What that film did for the sexually repressed youth of its generation in allowing experimentation with sexual promiscuity, bisexuality, even drag, Titanic does for the repressed young women who find in it virtual transcendence from sexism and even misogyny. We know that Cameron was strongly influenced by the work of psychologist Mary Pipher, particularly her 1994 book, Reviving Ophelia, which explores the process by which familial, social, and media expectations repress and often imperil young women. 4 

What is the cinematic vocabulary of Titanic, beyond its visual dazzle, that enables it to entertain such a wide and differentiated audience as well as address postmodern alienation and female repression, given the slight qualities of its characters and weak development of its story? Despite claims of originality and criticisms of Hollywood-epic pastiche, Titanic has a specific genealogy and possibly even a prototype. An examination of the intertext sheds light on the film's universality, the climate and manipulation of reception, and, most important, the state of gender roles in a continued, albeit questioned, patriarchal society.

First marketed as a disaster film in a period in which nostalgia for the 1970s had brought back the cinema trend of that era, Titanic is both more and less than the model and its imitators. Because of its wild success as a "historical romance," it will never be mentioned with its disaster peers of the mid-to-late 1990s, such as Twister, Independence Day, Dante's Peak, Volcano, Daylight, Deep Impact, and Armageddon. Titanic also has little in common with its seafaring predecessors. The most famous, The Poseidon Adventure (1972), managed to hint at the post-1960s sexual and even spiritual condition amid its then state-of-the-art special effects, although it avoided the psychological aspects of Paul Gallico's original novel. The Last Voyage (1960) had an even more simplistic plot, but it was nevertheless more realistic. The director destroyed an actual ocean liner and managed to convey something about human need and even racism through the slowly sinking set. The other English-language "Titanic" films, from the historical fictions of Jean Negulesco's Titanic (1953) and the British A Night to Remember (1958) to the iceberg finale of the 1964 musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown and the 1979 television film SOS Titanic, attempted to tell the story through various fictional conceits but with more-or-less historically recognizable events and traceable populations.

That Cameron's Titanic tends toward a fantasia on the theme of Titanic and its world, rather than a fictionalization, was not forthcoming from the director until well into the film's release, and only after historians pointed to a long roster of errors and families of Titanic victims protested the completely inaccurate portrayals. 5  The other Titanic films were hardly reenactments, but Cameron's version seemed to serve other, more calculated cinematic goals than a retelling of the disaster. Even the quickly produced 1996 television miniseries Titanic, with its own contrived plot involving young lovers and jewel thievery, told the tale without straying too far from the multiplot Grand Hotel formula of A Night to Remember. Unlike the other retellings, Cameron's film is the result of the virtual-history trend in the cinema of the last two decades, which has brought new meaning to the concept of history as fiction. The origin of this cycle is Oliver Stone's pseudo-docudrama filmmaking, in which truth and speculation blend into a "new" history (JFK [1991], The Doors [1991], Nixon [1995]) and which led to such abominations as the wholesale rewriting of the events emanating from the Russian Revolution in the animated feature Anastasia (1997). Certainly the original 1956 live-action version of the story fictionalizes history, but how many schoolchildren will now insist that a wizard by the name of Rasputin chased a Russian royal from Stalin's "St. Petersburg" to Paris, where he was ultimately drowned in the Seine?

The Bergfilm and Titanic

Despite its fantasia aspect and its unique place among Titanic and other ship-disaster films, Cameron's Titanic is not an original. The director's sly use of "Planet Ice" as the film's working title in order to mislead the inquisitive press suggests he knew his creation was essentially a re-vision of the German Bergfilm. As Eric Rentschler points out in his seminal reevaluation of Bergfilms as an important Weimar German film genre, with atmospheric, danger-laden plots and settings in avalanche-prone mountains and on glaciers, Bergfilms are more than the "regressive parables" Siegfried Kracauer posited in his once-redoubtable From Caligari to Hitler. Developing from documentary, the Bergfilm "evolved into a precarious balance between the expressive shapes of nature and the romantic triangles of melodrama." 6  Further, Rentschler finds the female presence to "represent and embody a spirit inimical to male images" — these being either the phallic symbolism of the mountain vistas and/or the "inner landscape" of the heroes. 7 

Rentschler's compelling analyses of The Holy Mountain (1926), Arnold Fanck's first collaboration with Leni Riefenstahl, and Fanck's The White Hell of Piz Palu (1929), posit that landscapes and female bodies are places of male exploration. In the realm of this genre, mountains and women are similarly unpredictable, elemental forces: "[They] are objects of a projective anxiety, a formative will, an instrumental zeal, properties men revel in and at the same time fear, essences that arrest gazes and threaten lives, elements therefore that one tries to contain and control with the modern means at man's disposal — with mixed success." 8  Because this description can be applied to the character constellation of Cameron's Titanic and to the film's ideological backdrop, one must also reexamine Kracauer's psychological understanding of the "why" of Weimar's Bergfilm to underscore the effectiveness of such a formula for the international but primarily American audience of the late 1990s. This cinema of overpowering landscapes and stuntwork, which "glorif[ies] submission to inexorable destiny and elemental might, anticipating fascist surrender to irrationalism and brute force," even more than historical fiction, musicals, or comedy, provided much-needed escapism for a debased German society that had lost its identity following World War I. 9  That population, particularly the impoverished middle classes, sought to leave the chaos of modernity, which brought with it disastrous inflation and relative dehumanization. Cinematic notions of nature's purity and power, elements of German Romanticism, became a refuge.

The images of the Weimar-era Bergfilm form a die from which Cameron's Titanic seems to be cut, and the genre's relationship with early techno-modernism echoes our own contemporary conflicts. Rentschler comments that Fanck's The White Hell of Piz Palu was praised in its time as a "synthesis... of natural force and technological power, of bodily energy and spiritual endeavor... a filmic hybrid, a merger between the physical world and the sophisticated scientific devices which measure and elaborate it." 10  As a diversion from economic and political instability, and the alienation of modernity, it was praised (in its time) as great film art and great popular entertainment: "Only an exhilaration which takes people to the outer limits of human capacity can manage to stir our entire being in such a manner." 11 

The time has apparently come again for Bergfilm escapism in a setting that features if not a specific then a general recasting of the same factors of interwar German and Central European angst: dehumanization through (post)modernity and its technology; international economic and geopolitical instability; and lack of trust in social and political concepts and/or the national identity and role. Whether for an alienated Weimar German public longing for the facade of honor and order in a world in which the enemy has become unrecognizable, or for an alienated contemporary American public similarly seeking a tangible enemy (be it alien, asteroid, or iceberg), the Bergfilm universally delivered the fantasy, evoking a near-mythic individuality and heroism.

More Correspondences

The narrative of Arnold Fanck's The Holy Mountain provides a basis for evaluating the structure and character constellation of Cameron's Titanic as a Bergfilm. In the opening shots of Fanck's film, Diotima dances on the seashore and is immediately identified with nature — the sea and, through a superimposed vision, a mountain. She attracts both the mountain climber Robert and his younger friend, Vigo. Their desire for Diotima and subsequent rivalry lead to their deaths in the ice, leaving Diotima alone by the sea with only memories of her lost lovers.

Spectacular scenery of the ocean and icebergs enters the genre in Fanck's S.O.S. Iceberg (1933), but it is in Fanck's Storms over Mont Blanc (also known as Avalanche, 1930) that technology is first added to the battle between nature and human. Hella (Leni Riefenstahl), an astronomy student, comes between her father, who criticizes her untraditional image, and his best friend. Garbed in a laboratory uniform and associated with both an observatory telescope and the forces of nature, Hella ultimately rescues her nearly frozen lover-to-be from his radio station on the treacherous Mont Blanc. One can easily see here the model on which Riefenstahl later based her own Bergfilm and the contradictory, mythic/liberated woman with whom she identified and whom she used to maneuver beyond static and often reactionary female roles in the Nazi period.

Rentschler's analysis of Hella's incongruity — "modern scientist and nature girl, sexless being and erotic projection, disembodied hand and nurturing presence" 12  — might well apply to Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) in Titanic. Rejecting her mother's plea for tradition, demanding self-determination, and refusing a reactionary union with Caledon Hockley, Rose stands on the precipice of change (literally twice on the edge of the ship) and, in the 1912 reality of the film, represents both everything that is possible for her gender and nothing that is deemed recognizable. Yet, to the audiences of the late 1990s, the Rose of 1912 is quite identifiable as an idealistic role model, especially given the "proof" of Old Rose. She is also a male vision of female mystery and danger, as stock a Bergfilm figure as anything Arnold Fanck might have created; her survival places her outside male-dominated society and technology and connects her with the mythical powers of nature. She breaks apart a (male-dominated) traditional course of action, as the iceberg breaks apart the unsinkable ship. Both woman and nature in Fanck interrupt the linear development associated with male ego and intent.

Cameron uses Bergfilm conventions in a revisionist manner, much as Riefenstahl did in her 1945-1954 film, Tiefland. Neither is a snowy mountain epic, although Titanic does offer ice and water as natural enemies of humanity and its technology. And while Tiefland is about the natural power of the mountain and its human extension, in Titanic Cameron creates an artificial Berg in the guise of a mythic ship, also populated by its human extensions. Riefenstahl sought to strengthen the role of the woman and succeeded in doing so without lessening the erotic tension in her conventional relationships with male figures.

Riefenstahl's first film, The Blue Light (1932), connected the German Romantic mythos of nature and the mountain with the feral female more than any Bergfilm before it. Snow and avalanche were no longer a necessity in Riefenstahl's version of the genre. Nevertheless, the evils of modernity, of capitalism in The Blue Light, and then of state capitalism (sham feudalism supported by capitalist forces) in Tiefland continue to support Kracauer's position that the Bergfilm is essentially reactionary. Yet Riefenstahl conveyed astonishing messages in Tiefland — the equality of woman with man, the redefinition of the heroic man from the Nazi icon, and the condemnation of totalitarianism.

Tiefland and Titanic

Cameron's seafaring Bergfilm offers tantalizing correspondences with Riefenstahl's Tiefland in a more elementary manner than a shared philosophical influence. He seems to re-vision a film that academia and even popular criticism have avoided with a sort of prejudicial mania, as German feminist filmmaker Helma Sanders-Brahms indicates. 13  Unlike the quotes of Riefenstahl's style and mise-en-scène in the work of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and their willingness to admit to these allusions, Cameron's unspoken homage might have something to do with the relatively unknown and certainly underexamined status of Tiefland.

How would Cameron have come to know the Bergfilm and Tiefland? Christopher Heard's biography states that Cameron scoured the University of Southern California library during the 1970s, "reading everything he could get his hands on about movies." 14  In addition to his fascination with cinema history and technology, and his early art direction/production designer experience for John Carpenter and Roger Corman, Cameron is no stranger to German and French film. Reportedly a "huge fan" of Das Boot (1981), he briefly considered German actor Jürgen Prochnow as his Terminator. 15  His close association with Austrian-American actor Arnold Schwarzenegger offers nothing more specific to support his education in Riefenstahl or the Bergfilm, although Tiefland is considered an Austrian film. Yet Cameron's work strongly suggests he re-visions not only genres and filmmakers' styles but also the films themselves. Consider his 1994 True Lies, remade from a little-known French film, La Totale! (1991). In addition to the recycled plot, the film's Florida Keys scenes, and watery nuclear weapon terrorism, its suave tango-dancing hero quotes several James Bond movies, particularly License to Kill (1989), Thunderball (1965), and its remake, Never Say Never Again (1983). Cameron admits to recycling the famed erotic fireworks scene in Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief (1955) for his own nuclear explosion kiss. 16  This James Bond redux joins other sociopolitical reactionism in Cameron's film models. Heard notes that the director/writer's film The Abyss (1989) "resembled several other isolationist horror/science fiction movies that came before it, like The Thing and Ridley Scott's Alien." 17 

Perhaps in the "five years" in which Cameron "dreamt of making a historical romance set against the backdrop of the world's greatest marine disaster," 18  he discovered the 1943 German Titanic 19  and was led from there to the Bergfilm and to Riefenstahl. Thomas Elsæsser's idea that Weimar German cinema (and the genres that continued into the Nazi era) "has always been something of a filmmakers' or film scholars' cinema" might well suggest that informed and reflective Cameron was a disciple. 20  Although Cameron has remained silent on this subject, he seems to have understood the essence of the Bergfilm and its images of human submission to elemental forces when he insisted that his iceberg saga was "a metaphor for the inevitability of death. We're all on the Titanic." 21  This recalls a 1929 review of The White Hell of Piz Palu that notes the mythic quality of the film's battle between nature and humanity/technology and the film's clouds, which "glide swiftly through the sky like brightly contoured ships of death." 22 

The historical genre of Titanic is curiously unique within the science-fiction/adventure focus of Cameron's directorial and writing œuvre, which, in addition to The Abyss and True Lies, includes films such as Terminator I and II (1984; 1996), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Aliens (1986), and Strange Days (1995), a meditation on techno-voyeurism and the "borrowing" of others' visions and experiences. Cameron has also admitted that he hates screenwriting and that the "writing in his films is usually the weakest element." 23  Heard unquestioningly accepts the quantum leap of the Titanic script, calling it "the finest screenwriting he [Cameron] has ever done... enhanced by the epically-scaled, beautifully written love story set against the ocean liner and its fate." 24  More likely, given Cameron's particular homage-accented filmmaking, a prior film, or several films, formed the basis of his Titanic.

It may soon become clearer that Riefenstahl's Tiefland reflects a shift in the director's ideology, regardless of the unyielding resistance by most critics to allowing her to change her cinematic mind. In my 1996 analysis, which amplifies Sanders-Brahms's essay"Tyrannenmord," I suggest that Tiefland liberated a frustrated and even frightened Riefenstahl, who by 1943 found herself an unimportant filmmaker and whose difference from the Nazi norm as woman and artist made her all the more uncomfortable and dangerous. 25  This phase was also precipitated by personal crisis — her witnessing the killing of Polish civilians, her brother's indictment on black-marketeering charges and his subsequent death on the Eastern Front, and her own slow detachment from Nazism, if not from Hitler. Her Tiefland is thus a "woman's picture" on several levels: Riefenstahl is writer, director, lead performer, and editor; Isabella Ploberger is one of the art directors; and Trude Lechle assists Albert Benitz on camera. The plot, too, can easily be read as protofeminist. Based on the nineteenth-century drama Terra Baixa, by Angel Guimera, and the later opera by Eugene d'Albert, Tiefland features Riefenstahl as a Spanish gypsy dancer caught between a Goebbels-esque machismo Marquez (Bernhard Minetti), who wishes to possess her, and an innocent and gentle mountain shepherd, Pedro, who truly loves her. Riefenstahl creates and then rejects a symbolic phallocratic National Socialism as her character escapes the dictatorial Marquez, who abuses her and mistreats the populace. The man-child Pedro is offered as the alternative to the egoistic and brutal male icon of Nazism, and Riefenstahl's character's liberation from class structures, politics, and oppression offers her cinematic alter-ego a Romantic transcendence whereby she can explore her individuality and her creativity, while the director remained tied to the fall of the Reich.

"Put your chain back on!"
— The Marquez tossing Martha her pendant in Tiefland.

The love triangle in Cameron's Titanic is, of course, a melodramatic convention that spans the history of literature, theater, and film. Nevertheless, the "politically correct" message in the relationship is pure Bergfilm: the positioning of the central female character, Rose, between two opposite male definitions — one patriarchal, dictatorial, and violent and the other gentle, innocent, and nonconformist — strongly echoes Tiefland, especially given the added similarity of class distinction. Both Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Pedro (Franz Eichberger) are classless wanderers. They are also blonde, childlike in visage, and wear light-colored rough-hewn clothing. Both Caledon Hockley (Billy Zane) and the Marquez of Roccabruna are ruling-class cads who take what they desire and treat women as possessions or, worse, as chattel. Both have dark hair, wear dark, fine clothing, and prefer the others in their midst, particularly the female object, to be similarly attired. Both offer the objects of their desire class and financial elevation and strike out violently when questioned or rejected. Finally, both hunt their female possessions and the "thief" of this possession with deadly intent.

The similarities between Winslet's Rose and Riefenstahl's Martha are equally compelling but more prismatic. Although Rose is hardly a penniless gypsy dancer, she is drawn into her relationship with Caledon because it offers her monetary and class advancement. Reflecting Martha's father-like gypsy companion is Rose's mother, Ruth. Both Martha and Rose are "bought" by the powerful and wealthy males, while their parental figures are cast aside. Martha's guardian is actually given a bag of coins upon his dismissal, something Ruth can only hope for in the abstract. She is nevertheless cowed and "bought" by the possibilities of Caledon's fortune. Rose's frustrated creativity is signified in her pride in her modernist art collection 26  and in Jack Dawson's adoration of her as his muse (Martha is also a muse to Pedro). This is also suggested by the frame story, in which we witness Rose's artistic creations of her later life and her transcendence of her class and gender limitations through a semi-bohemian lifestyle.

The collection of paintings, by Picasso, Monet, and Degas, which Cameron intentionally displays, was, of course, never on the Titanic and thus deserves further examination. Eco regards modern art as "the exercise of a reason which tries to reduce things to a discursive clarity." 27  Given that these works were obviously intended to serve as widely recognizable symbols of idealized modern creativity, doomed with the technological wonder of the ship in the alternate history of Cameron's film, they become emblems of the director's overall cinematic rejection of modernist rationalism. This involves his conscious fantasia on history and use of the Romantic/mythic Bergfilm convention, as well as his message on the failure of technology against nature and the disruptive elemental definition of"Woman."

In the Bergfilm, the male attempts to control or tame the female's "wild" nature and so both Martha and Rose are gifted with bejeweled necklaces, signifying their purchase and chaining. Two scenes in Tiefland influence the scene in Titanic in which Rose is given her jewels. In her bedroom in the castle, the Marquez first places a comb in Martha's hair and drapes her with a mantilla, the uniform of a noble lady. As he stands behind her, while looking at her image in a mirror, the Marquez tells Martha, "This is how I want you to look, for me," and then, "You are too good for the highway and taverns. I am keeping you here and want you to stay." In a later scene in the same bedroom, the Marquez tells Martha, "I have a surprise for you," and takes a richly jeweled pendant from a box and puts it around her neck. This generosity prompts Martha to ask the Marquez to deal with "his" suffering peasants, an indication of his role as a noble lord or "royal." In Titanic, Caledon visits Rose in her stateroom, where he presents her with the blue diamond pendant, "as a reminder of my feelings for you." 28  He places the jewel around her neck as they are both reflected in the mirror. Hockley then informs Rose: "We are royalty, Rose. There is nothing I couldn't give you, there is nothing I'd deny you if you would not deny me." Martha subsequently gives her pendant to a peasant's wife whose crops are dying because the Marquez has diverted the river. Rose refuses to keep her pendant as well, but through accidental circumstances, she finds it in her possession. She still has it at the end of her life, never having used it for financial gain.

Most interesting is the possible connection between the erotic scenes in the two films. The female gaze of Riefenstahl's lens, which sexualizes Pedro's sleeping face and partially undraped body, is paralleled in Cameron's ersatz female gaze of the steamy automobile love scene in which Jack's naked body is primary in the frame, enforcing him as Rose's and the audience's sex object. Jack draws the naked Rose, whereas Pedro paints only a mental picture of Martha. Nevertheless, both icons are emblematic of rebellion and individuality. There is a gaze cross-over here as well: Riefenstahl's ersatz male gaze on the undulating bosoms from her own dance scenes paralleled with Cameron's actual male gaze on Rose's naked breasts.

Although there is a class-oriented shift of Tiefland's mountain Pedro and valley Marquez in Titanic's placing of Jack in the depths and the wealthy Caledon Hockley in the heights of the ship, in both films it is the central woman who moves easily between the two locations. Both Martha and Rose are introduced to their "heroes" through a rescue from the heights. Martha nearly dies of exposure in the mountains attempting to escape the Marquez. She is saved by Pedro, who is spellbound by her and to whom she is attracted, but she is also suspicious of him, until the Marquez's servants take her back to the castle. In a nearly suicidal attempt to escape Caledon, Rose climbs to the top of the Titanic's stern and is rescued by the wandering Jack Dawson (as unfettered and nonconformist as Pedro), who is equally spellbound by this imperiled beauty. Both attracted to and repulsed by Jack, Rose is eventually taken back to the palatial salons by Caledon, Colonel Gracie (Bernard Fox), and the deck stewards.

Tiefland cuts between the earthy population of the tavern and the servants' quarters and the richly appointed guests of the Marquez's dinners. Similarly, Titanic continuously vacillates between the accommodations in steerage and the dining rooms and tea salons of first class. With the population of the Titanic serving as a microcosm of a class-distinct pre-World War I European/American society, it is curious that Cameron opts for a Romantic rather than a Marxist interpretation of the common folk, except that Tiefland also does in its strict Romantic geosocial placement: urban = corruption; nature = purity. The earthy celebration in steerage depicts the "natural" human and liberates a Rose. Constricted by artifice, she kicks off her shoes to join in the dance. Jack, displaying his feminine side, tells Rose to reject patriarchal logic and linear thought: "Go with it, don't think." In Tiefland, the Marquez's obsession with wealth and protocapitalism (the raising of prized bulls; his plan to marry the mayor's wealthy daughter for her money) and his dismissal of Pedro as a fool are mirrored in Titanic whenever Caledon comments on Jack's "otherness." He does not invite Jack to the smoking salon with the other men because of Jack's obvious foreignness to the male world of politics and business. He is subsequently left behind with the women.

One other female type manages to span the mountains and valleys of both films. In Tiefland, it is Josefa (Frieda Richard), the old servant at the Marquez's castle who is wary of her superiors, who gives Pedro the things he needs to survive, and who warns Martha that she will never escape the Marquez. She blames the Marquez's controlling actions for Martha's disappearance: "Did you hit her?" she inquires when he demands to know where Martha is. In Titanic, Molly Brown may not be Rose's confidant, but, like Josefa, she lives in palatial salons without belonging to them and attempts to reason with people in a social class who hardly accept her. She comments on Caledon's controlling attitude toward Rose when he pulls the cigarette from her lips and orders dinner for her without consulting her first. She is also ersatz mother to Jack, dressing him in her son's finery and preparing him to "survive" the invitation to Caledon Hockley's dinner party. The sham acceptance of Jack as Rose's dinner date in the first-class dining room (where it is patronizingly noted that he could "almost pass as a gentleman") recalls the similar ridicule Pedro is subjected to by smirking villagers during the sham marriage between him and Martha in Tiefland. Although Jack, unlike the completely naive Pedro, is aware Caledon is mocking him, Jack's obvious desire to be paired with Rose makes him equally blind to the facade of the evening and his temporary acceptance. Jack's later attempt to reach Rose during the first-class church services meets with a rebuff that clearly informs him he is not welcome.

There are also strong similarities between Tiefland and Titanic in the scenes that deal with the heroine's disappearance. The frustrated Marquez orders his aide, Camillo (Aribert Wäscher), to find the lost Martha; likewise, Caledon orders Spicer Lovejoy (David Warner) to make a full-ship search for Rose. Both the Marquez and Caledon cannot fathom why the object of their desire has fled or where she could be. Like the manipulative Camillo, who returns the missing pendant and hatches the sham-marriage plot so that the Marquez may be able to retain Martha, Lovejoy arranges for Jack to appear to have stolen the blue diamond so that Rose may be able to return to Caledon. The Marquez strikes Martha for having run from him and Caledon nearly does likewise, halting himself after having turned over the breakfast table; he finally strikes Rose and calls her a "slut" when she openly opposes him during the sinking of the ship. Both the Marquez and Caledon ultimately blame their loss of control on their rivals, naïve men who have shown "their" woman a different path.

As Bergfilm, Tiefland might have even offered a model for the elemental and human chaos of the Titanic disaster. A storm destroys the Marquez's wedding dinner and scatters the well-dressed guests in panic. As a foreshadowing of the final confrontation between Pedro and the Marquez, the storm creates a heightened atmosphere of tension and suggests a divine anger (through natural forces, allied with the purity of Pedro) against the evil of the Marquez and the arrogance of the upper class. In its collision with the iceberg, the Titanic becomes a threatening colossus of natural forces. Recalling the peril of Riefenstahl and her rescuer on the mountains of The White Hell of Piz Palu and the nonwintry Tiefland, Rose and Jack climb the ever-growing Mount Titanic to avoid death by ice and water as the stern of the sinking ship rises in the air. In both films, the poor (Tiefland's peasants and Titanic's steerage passengers) seek salvation from death related to water. While Riefenstahl's peasants beg for water in a drought brought on by the symbol of the town's authority, Cameron's third-class passengers beg the ship's authority for release from their imprisonment in steerage, lest they be drowned. Like the double "wedding-night" sequence in Tiefland, in which Martha, who believes Pedro accepted the mill in return for making her available to the now-married Marquez and comes to realize Pedro's innocence, in Titanic, Rose rescues the handcuffed Jack and apologizes for having accepted Caledon's condemnation of him for stealing the necklace. Her rescue of the immobile Jack in the rising waters of the ship suggests Riefenstahl again, but this time when the heroic Hella rescues her lover in the earlier Bergfilm, Storms over Mont Blanc. Even more reflective of early Fanck/Riefenstahl imagery is Rose's descent from the ship on a lifeboat as she stares at the two embattled lovers she leaves behind to die, a possible allusion to the conclusion of The Holy Mountain, in which Diotima, at the edge of the ocean, considers her two embattled and now-dead lovers. At the conclusion of Titanic, Old Rose replays Diotima's fate, having lost both Jack and Caledon. She recalls them in her story and then in her memory as she stands on the ship's railing before dropping the blue diamond into the depths. As the Marquez pulls a knife on Pedro over Martha in the ever-increasing storm, so Caledon attempts to shoot Jack over Rose in the ever-sinking ship.

"A woman's heart is a deep ocean of secrets."
— Old Rose in Titanic

The duel between the Marquez and Pedro in Tiefland ultimately offers a happy future for Martha, who is seen ascending the mountain with Pedro. Cameron kills off Jack as well as the evil Caledon (Old Rose relates his suicide to the stock market crash), but the final scene of Titanic offers a Tiefland-like outcome in Old Rose's death dream, which reunites her with Jack on the ship.

The correspondences between contemporary Riefenstahl and Old Rose are strong. Both are single, independent, creative, perhaps even pioneering women. We first see Rose making pottery, surrounded by examples of non-Western art and crafts (a nod to Riefenstahl's African Nuba photography?). At the conclusion of the film, we see photos of her in traditional male roles: as a champion angler, astride a horse, and as an aviatrix. Harboring her memories and secrets and surrounded by salvage equipment, she evokes Riefenstahl in recent years in skin-diving garb photographing coral reefs and undersea life. The image of Old Rose on the salvage ship also mirrors Riefenstahl in Ray Müller's documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1993). Compare the transfixed face and the images of film reflected in Riefenstahl's telling eyes as she watches her footage and the shots of Gloria Stuart (who recalls Riefenstahl's visage) as Old Rose as she stares into the screen depicting the Titanic salvage operations. Both moments become the motivation for flashbacks — Riefenstahl making Triumph of the Will and Old Rose's memory-as-film of her Titanic narrative. The very private release of the blue diamond pendant symbolizes not only the character of Rose, who insists on possessing and burying her past, but also Riefenstahl, who has always demanded that her life and art present a personal view.

The postmodernity of Titanic can also be traced through the "otherness" of the Martha/Rose and Pedro/Jack parallelism and through Cameron's reworking of "male" and "female" characteristics. Fanck's image of Riefenstahl in Storms over Mont Blanc, in which her character (Hella) signifies the conventional characteristics of both woman and man, foreshadows Riefenstahl's career dualism as a "beautiful" 29  actress and a pioneer in the male-dominated fields of film direction and technology. Her Martha in Tiefland also moves from passivity as a sexual object to a more rational, even dominant, figure. Pedro, however, displays conventional feminine attributes: he is intuitive, emotional, and nurturing. Such androgyny is found not only in Cameron's heroic Rose and sensitive Jack but in his earlier creation, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the heroine of Aliens. Barbara Creed finds this "hybrid" figure to be one whose "representation derives from a period of profound social and cultural change; she embodies both male and female gender characteristics with ease and intelligence." 30  Creed believes that rather than mere role reversal, Cameron was self-conscious of this new blend in Aliens. Its timing coincided with the postmodern breakdown of barriers and the emphasis on the androgynous figure in 1980s popular culture, such as Boy George and Laurie Anderson, and in cinema with Victor/Victoria (also based on a Weimar-era German film). 31 


Another factor in Titanic's popularity is its postmodern æsthetic and mythic recycling, which Fredric Jameson and Will Booker credit Star Wars and the Indiana Jones series (both referencing Riefenstahl) with having successfully pioneered. Booker adds that a film like Judge Dredd (1995) goes even beyond the mythic and myth-creating nostalgia of Star Wars and "works within a Baudrillardian æsthetic of pure surface." 32  That is to say, it is a postmodern collage of style and period that borrows everyone else's visions and thereby rejects modernist univalence and stylistic hierarchies. With Titanic, however, Cameron is a more subtle postmodernist, although his science-fiction work, such as his co-authored script for Strange Days, is about the conflict found in the borrowing of visions and displays strong stylistic multiplicity. Cameron's elegant recycling of the Bergfilm genre in Titanic gives us a simulated history that repackages the Fanck and Riefenstahl rejection of modernisms (Weimar-era liberal and, ultimately, German fascist, respectively) for an audience caught in a negative backlash to capitalist, high-tech media culture. Vivian Sobchack sees that backlash as a negative postmodernism: "Lacking a sense of our roots, distanced from the gravitational pull of community and history, we have become strangers to our own lives — transients, tourists, cultural anthropologists who estheticize the everyday and wonder indiscriminately at everything." 33 

The surface appeal of Titanic to an audience of young women is easy to explain. Cameron recasts what the Bergfilm always offered and what Leni Riefenstahl enforced in her narratives and her own iconization: female strength and independence. If the sense of true equality is lost in the genre's mythologizing of "Woman," then at least the women have tenacity, intelligence, and survivability. As Deborah Rhode acknowledges, such women are still rare in the media today, but Titanic's Bergfilm correspondences also point to the subtext that enables male audience identification: man cannot conquer nature or woman yet is bound to both. Add to this the allegorical aspect of the disaster as a failure of modernity in a current period of growing technological alienation — Umberto Eco's postmodern "crisis of reason" — and it is little wonder that a banal formula can have such a psychological effect on contemporary audiences of both genders.

Of course, Cameron's Titanic easily fits the surface criteria Kracauer once set for the Bergfilm genre: "precipices and passions, inaccessible steeps and insoluble human conflicts." They are simply "half-monumental, half-sentimental." 34  But the messages of this genre that first responded to Weimar Germany and now resound in the postmodern Western world are not so easily dismissed as its style. Rhode conveys a telling experience with her "deep-in-denial" nine-year-old niece, who is counseled on the class and gender bias in Victorian England while watching My Fair Lady (a period not too distant from 1912) and on what has and has not changed for women. Rhode judges that "it has not yet occurred to her that she might ever face limitations because of her sex." 35  Obviously, this fact has occurred to most of Titanic's slightly older female viewers. The chains they remove from around their necks are a ritualistic recognition of this condition that borders on incantation.

Regardless of how Cameron has been influenced by the Bergfilm genre, Titanic has underscored a contradictory postmodern Zeitgeist. The fantasy of Rose and the twin mountains of ice and iron, like that of Princess Diana, enables women to identify with, and deify, the struggle for female social ascendancy in the past that suggests the stasis of that development in Western society in the present. The patriarchal, male-oriented anxiety underpinning Eco's "crisis of reason" and the possibility of female revolt/authority are exploited in Titanic as well, and it is a far greater revelation. Caledon and Jack find an uncontrollable nature, a defeated/ing modernity (this from a film and filmmaker associated with cutting-edge virtual-effects technology), and together they signal the "feminization" that will be needed to survive and understand the death of patriarchal modernisms.

Robert von Dassanowsky is chair of the Department of Languages and Cultures and director of Film Studies and German Studies at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. He has published widely on Central European and Anglo-American cinema and literature, and is the founding vice president of the Austrian American Film Association.


My thanks to Vivian Sobchack for her encouragement and to Elisabeth Littell Frech for her useful suggestions.

  1. Erik Fosnes Hansen, "Die Natur schlägt zurück! Erik Fosnes Hansens Protokoll eines Titanic — Fachgesprächs mit Hans MagnusEnzensberger" (Nature Strikes Back! Erik Fosnes Hansen's Minutes of a Titanic Discussion with Hans Magnus Enzensberger), Der Spiegel, March 23, 1998, 238-39.
  2. See JoAnn Cannon, Postmodern Italian Fiction: The Crisis of Reason in Calvino, Eco, Sciascia, Malerba (Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickenson University Press, 1989), 31.
  3. Deborah L. Rhode, Speaking of Sex: The Denial of Gender Inequality (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).
  4. Nicholas von Festenberg and Susanne Weingarten, "Selig auf dem Wrack der Träume" (Blissful on the Wreck of Dreams), Der Spiegel, March 23, 1998, 231-32. See also Mary Pipher, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (New York: Putnam,1994).
  5. Hollywood journalist Lew Irwin reported on April 16, 1998, that

    Twentieth Century Fox has delivered what many interpreted as a half-hearted apology to the residents of the Scottish town of Dalbeattie and the 80-year-old nephew of William Murdoch, who was depicted in Titanic as a coward who shot panicked passengers and then took his own life.... Historians have documented how he helped guide passengers to lifeboats and, in the end, gave his own lifejacket to one of them. At a ceremony in the town, Fox exec Scott Neeson, who said he was also speaking for writer-director JamesCameron, told Scott Murdoch, "I'm sorry we've caused you and your family so much distress." He also contributed a check for $8,500 to the Murdoch Memorial Fund.... Said Scott Murdoch, "In three or four years people will have forgotten about this ceremony but the film and video will still portray my uncle as a murderer."

    Lew Irwin, Studio Briefing, April 16, 1998, available at http://newshare.com/sb/ An extensive and detailed roster of errors, anachronisms, and misrepresentations, as well as correct information wrongly criticized as errors in reviews, fill several pages of the Internet Movie Database (http://us.imdb.com).

  6. Eric Rentschler, "Mountains and Modernity: Relocating the Bergfilm," New German Critique 51 (1990): 137, 142, 153.
  7. Ibid., 153.
  8. Ibid., 156.
  9. Ibid., 137.
  10. Ibid., 145.
  11. Lichtbild-Bühne, February 3, 1931, quoted in Klaus Kreimeier, ed., Fanck-Trenker-Riefenstahl: der deutsche Bergfilm und seine Folgen (Fanck-Trenker-Riefenstahl: The German Mountain Film and Its Consequences) (Berlin: Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek, 1972),E3.
  12. Rentschler, "Mountains and Modernity," 147.
  13. "Wie kommt es, daß fünfzig Jahre später die Berührungsangst vor diesem Film immer noch so groß ist, daß die Weigerung, ihnüberhaupt nur anzusehen, bei deutschen Intellektuellen zum guten Ton gehört?" (How is it possible that after fifty years the fear of dealing with this film is still so great that just the refusal to view it is considered a correct attitude for German intellectuals?) Helma Sanders-Brahms, "Tyrannenmord: Tiefland von Leni Riefenstahl" (Tyrant Murder: Tiefland by Leni Riefenstahl), in Norbert Grob, ed., Das Dunkle zwischen den Bildern: Essays, Porträts, Kritiken (The Darkness between the Pictures: Essays, Portraits, Critique) (Frankfurt: Verlag der Autoren, 1992), 242; my translation.
  14. Christopher Heard, Dreaming Aloud: The Life and Films of James Cameron (Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1997), 10.
  15. Ibid., 67.
  16. Ibid., 208.
  17. Ibid., 149.
  18. Ibid., 228.
  19. Linda Schulte-Sasse considers the 1943 German Titanic a potent example of Nazi propaganda since it "ascribes responsibility forthe shipwreck to British capitalists playing the stock market." Schulte-Sasse, Entertaining the Third Reich: Illusions of Wholeness in Nazi Cinema (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996), 247. She fails to mention, however, that production was halted at one pointand that, because of its subject matter, the film did not receive its premiere in German-speaking Europe until 1949. By 1950, the Allies had forbidden the showing of Titanic in West Germany because of the film's anti-British slant. Klaus Kreimeier reports that during the filming of this Titanic, the director Herbert Selpin was denounced for making insulting comments about the Wehrmacht, which he would not recant. He was subsequently expelled from the Reich Film Guild and arrested. Selpin reportedly committed suicide in his prison cellon August 1, 1942. See Kreimeier, The UFA Story: A History of Germany's Greatest Film Company 1918-1945, trans. Robert and Rita Kimber (New York: Hill and Wang, 1996), 327-28. The film was completed by Werner Klingler, "whom the National Socialists had [then also] forced out of work" (369). Thomas Kramer and Martin Prucha claim that the topic of a sea disaster was considered too psychologically disturbing for the homefront during the war and that the film remained relatively unseen. Kramer and Prucha, Film im Lauf der Zeit: 100 Jahre Kino in Deutschland, Österreich, und der Schweiz (Film in the Flow of Time: 100 Years of Cinema in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland) (Vienna: Ueberreuter, 1994), 147. In fact, Propaganda Minister Goebbels forbade the showing of the film in Germany because he considered the scenes of mass panic unsuitable for German audiences. The film subsequently premiered in occupied Paris in 1943. Ironically, despite the film's anti-British controversy, its special-effect scenes were used without credit in the 1958 British film A Night to Remember.
  20. Thomas Elsæsser, "Film History and Visual Pleasure: Weimar Cinema," in Patricia Mellencamp and Philip Rosen, eds., Cinema Histories, Cinema Practices (Frederick, Md.: University Press of America, 1984), 81.
  21. Heard, Dreaming Aloud, 227.
  22. "Gletscher-Märchen" (Glacial Fairy Tale), Frankfurter Zeitung, November 15, 1929, quoted in Rentschler, "Mountains and Modernity," 150.
  23. Heard, Dreaming Aloud, 38, 237.
  24. Ibid., 238.
  25. Robert von Dassanowsky, "Wherever You May Run, You Cannot Escape Him": Leni Riefenstahl's Self-Reflection and Romantic Transcendence of Nazism in Tiefland," Camera Obscura 35 (1995): 107-29.
  26. The collection includes Pablo Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Claude Monet's Water Lilies, and one of the ballerina series by Edgar Degas. These works were not on the Titanic.
  27. Cannon, Postmodern Italian Fiction, 31-32.
  28. A music box plays the Johann Strauss, Jr., waltz Tales from the Vienna Woods in the background during this scene. Perhaps this is Cameron's nod to Tiefland (considered an Austrian film) as an influence on his work.
  29. Richard Corliss blames the problematic reception of Riefenstahl in the postwar world on three factors: "One is that Triumph [of the Will] is too good a movie.... Another is that her visual style — heroic, sensuous, attuned to the mists and myths of nature — was never incritical fashion. Finally, she was a woman, a beautiful woman." Corliss, "Riefenstahl's Last Triumph," Time, October 18, 1993, 92.
  30. Barbara Creed, "From Here to Modernity," in Peter Brooker and Will Brooker, eds., Postmodern After-Images (London: Arnold,1997), 51.
  31. Ibid., 52.
  32. Will Brooker, "New Hope: The Postmodern Project of Star Wars," in Brooker and Brooker, Postmodern After-Images, 104.
  33. Vivian Sobchack, "Postmodern Modes of Ethnicity," in Brooker and Brooker, Postmodern After-Images, 117.
  34. Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1947), 110, 257.
  35. Rhode, Speaking of Sex, 250.

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