German artists faced a painful choice under the Nazis. Many fled abroad, driven by ideology or religion; a few resisted. Those remaining had little choice beyond collaboration: Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels’ dictatorial control of German culture, especially cinema, demanded public and private conformity. Usually, Goebbels tolerated a Jewish spouse or off-hand criticism, but occasionally he felt compelled to make an example.
This article briefly profiles two men who became such “examples.” Among the millions killed by Hitler’s regime, it’s easy to overlook individual tragedies. Yet their fates show that fame, wealth and talent were no guarantee against persecution.
Joachim Gottschalk had a promising career (and life) cut tragically short. Born in Calau, Brandenberg in 1904, Gottschalk acted on stage throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Gottschalk married Meta Wolff, a Jewish actress, in 1930; three years later, they had a son, Michael. When the Nazis came to power, Wolff was denied right to work onstage. Her husband’s career continued, acting in Frankfurt then, in 1938, joining Berlin’s Volksbühne (People’s Theater).
Dashingly handsome, Gottschalk proved a natural movie star. In 1938, he appeared in You and I, a romance opposite Brigitte Horney. The two proved a popular pairing, re-teaming on Tumult in Damascus (1939), with Gottschalk battling Arab rebels in World War I; A Woman Like You, with Horney as a career woman who falls for Gottschalk on vacation; and The Girl from Fano (1941). Popular as a romantic lead, Gottschalk showed his dramatic range in A Long Life (1940), playing a crippled war veteran.
Many felt that Gottschalk’s career was inhibited by the Nazis. Rumors spread that UFA executives promised Gottschalk full-on promotion if he divorced Wolff; Gottschalk refused, and his career suffered. He also denied overtures to appear in propaganda films. Yet Gottschalk succeeded despite this handicap. In 1941 he played Hans Christian Andersen in The Swedish Nightingale (1941), a successful musical that confirmed him as one of Germany’s biggest stars, with a devoted female following.
The Swedish Nightingale made Gottschalk a star, yet proved his undoing. Gottschalk boldly attended the premiere with Wolff, introducing her to several high-ranking Nazi officials. The officials, unaware of Wolff’s Judaism, were charmed; Goebbels, when he discovered the incident, was not. When Gottschalk refused a personal entreaty to leave Wolff, Goebbels proclaimed “I can bear this face no longer!” Shortly afterwards, Gottschalk was banned from appearing on stage or screen.
Gottschalk circumvented the ban, however, in unique fashion. Still in its infancy, television was a hopeful experiment; as early as 1936, the Berlin Olympics were broadcast to audiences across Germany. Hitler was intrigued by television’s propaganda possibilities, yet even then viewers preferred light entertainment: cooking shows, soap operas, celebrity gossip and news. When Gottschalk featured in a television production of Leonhard Frank’s popular wartime romance Karl and Anna, it proved successful.
This act of defiance, however, only encouraged his enemies. The Gestapo notified Gottschalk that he was to be conscripted into the Army, his wife and child sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp. Gottschalk pleaded to join his family, but was refused. “Nothing on Earth could help me,” Gottschalk told a friend. Despondent, he and Wolff agreed upon a desperate course of action.
On November 6th, 1941, the Gestapo raided Gottschalk’s Berlin home. They found Gottschalk, Wolff and their son Michael dead, having gassed themselves. Word of the tragedy spread throughout Germany: Brigitte Horney, among other stars, attended Gottschalk’s funeral, and the public expressed shock and indignation. Deeply embarrassed, Goebbels commanded that “Joachim Gottschalk shall not be mentioned henceforth, in word or picture.”
Herbert Selpin worked his way up the ladder: a boxer in his youth, internist at UFA, assistant to F.W. Murnau, representative for Fox, studio editor. No Nazi supporter, he worked steadily under the Third Reich, producing several dozen films, mostly historical dramas. Among them The Riders of East Africa (1934), chronicling Lettow-Vorbeck’s East African Campaign; Alarm in Peking (1937), an epic about the Boxer Rebellion; and Water for Canitoga (1939), a Western set in turn-of-the-century Canada.
Nicknamed “the Hedgehog” for his prickly personality, Selpin was nonetheless popular for his work ethic and playful sense of humor. One collaborator was actor Hans Albers, who made five films with Selpin. Albers, whose Jewish girlfriend was forced to live abroad, hated the Nazis and became Selpin’s drinking partner off-screen. Their final collaboration, Carl Peters (1940), was a propaganda epic glorifying the colonizer of German East Africa, much to Albers’ displeasure and Selpin’s disinterest.
After directing Secret Paper W.B.1. (1941), a biopic of submariner Wilhelm Bauer, Selpin was approached by Joseph Goebbels to make Titanic (1943). Screenwriter Walter Zerlett-Olfenius re-crafted the maritime disaster into propaganda: the villains are British financiers trying to break a speed record to boost White Star Line stock. The hero is a fictitious German officer (Hans Nielsen) who tries warning the Captain (Otto Wernicke) against his rash actions; he romances an aristocrat fallen on hard times (Sybille Schmitze).
Goebbels spared no expense funding Titanic. Exterior scenes used the SS Cap Arcona, docked in Gdynia, Poland. Interiors filmed in Berlin, where a specially-constructed set substituted for the Titanic. To facilitate night shooting, Selpin requested spotlights despite Berlin’s wartime blackouts. Unfortunately, this made the set vulnerable to Allied bombers; Selpin sheepishly relocated indoors to Tobis Studios. He entrusted second unit work to Zerlett-Olfenius, who spent months in Gdynia without shooting a single foot of film.
Yet Selpin’s biggest headache proved the extras, many Kriegsmarine sailors, who pursued actresses and female extras, while refusing direction. Selpin expressed frustration to Zerlett-Olfenius, a fanatical Nazi unsympathetic to his complaints. Zerlett-Olfenius claimed that the sailors were heroes; Selpin retorted that they won medals for womanizing, not heroism. Then Selpin, within earshot of several crew members, complained to Zerlett-Olfenius about “You and your shit soldiers, your shit lieutenant and your shit Wehrmacht!”
Zerlett-Olfenius reported Selpin to Goebbels, who summoned the director to his office on July 31st, 1942. The Minister grilled Selpin about his comments; Selpin not only confirmed but defended them. “Do you stand by these statements?” Goebbels asked, incredulously. “Yes, I do,” the director affirmed. Goebbels shouted, “Arrest this man and take him where he belongs!” Two SS men burst in and dragged the director away, before several stunned witnesses.
If the following sequence of events is unclear, the result isn’t. On August 1st, 1942, Selpin was found dead in his cell, hanged by his suspenders. Officially ruled a suicide, it seemed obvious that Goebbels ordered, or condoned the director’s murder. Titanic‘s outraged cast and crew threatened to strike; Zerlett-Olfenius received death threats. Goebbels advised that any impertinence would lead them to share Selpin’s fate.
As with Gottschalk, Goebbels forbade mention of Selpin’s name and suppressed his films. Asked about the director’s passing, Goebbels commented Selpin had “drawn the conclusions that would probably have been drawn by the State.” Titanic finished filming under Werner Klingler’s direction in 1943; yet Goebbels, fearing its disaster scenes would demoralize German viewers, suppressed the film. Aside from a few screenings in occupied France, a re-edited version in postwar East Germany and clips turning up in A Night to Remember, Titanic sunk into obscurity.
If Selpin had lived, he could have taken solace in the postwar reckoning. Goebbels committed suicide alongside his family and Fuhrer in the war’s closing days. In 1947, Walter Zerlett-Olfenius, friend-turned-traitor, was tried as an accessory to Selpin’s murder. Eyewitness testimony and gruesome photographs of Selpin’s death turned a conviction: Zerlett-Olfenius spent two years in prison, and was banned from working in German cinema again.
The Gottschalk section draws from David Stewart Hull’s Film in the Third Reich (1969) and Sabine Hake, Popular Cinema in the Third Reich (2010). On Selpin, see Hull; Felix Moeller, The Film Minister: Goebbels and the Cinema in the Third Reich (2000); and Malte Fiebing, Titanic (1943): Nazi Germany’s Version of the Disaster (2012).