The Hindenburg (1975)

Fittingly for a filmmaker too often regarded merely as a competent craftsman, Robert Wise’s late oeuvre is almost entirely predicated around the relationship of professionals with their tools, machines, and jobs of work. Such things promise Wise's characters refuge from the messiness of the world beyond and allow sublimation into the smooth workings of the mind’s constructs and the hand's creations, only to reveal the forces of entropy infecting those constructs too. The Haunting (1963) bridged the psychological entrapments of Wise’s schooling by Val Lewton, his halcyon days as helmsman of Oscar-winning prestige pictures, and this later phase: the “haunted” house of that film, carefully constructed to induce psychosis in inhabitants by its malign architect, leads into The Sand Pebbles (1966), The Andromeda Strain (1971), The Hindenburg, and Star Trek - The Motion Picture (1979), all driven by ghost-in-the-machine narratives where characters' attempts to variously hide in or fall back on technology are doomed by forces operating outside the purview of their logic and their faiths. This theme might even have started germinating in Wise’s noir works like The Set-Up (1949) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1958), where both the heroes and villains are frustrated by the march of time and the stubbornness of individuals pitched against the machine. The Hindenburg fits this theme perfectly although the figure of identification as arch-professional is split: George C. Scott’s antihero Col. Franz Ritter, William Atherton’s plebeian rebel Karl Boerth, and Charles Durning’s Captain Max Pruss vie for the role, complicated by the fact one wants to destroy the title craft, one wants to captain it, and one finds himself split on what to do. But all find themselves tethered by their simultaneous admiration for and anger with the state as represented by its technological product.

The Hindenburg is also certainly a product of the time when Wise was considered a very safe pair of hands for elaborate and expensive film productions, and this project represented an attempt by Universal Pictures to extend the lucrative and cheery, if often perversely nihilistic, run of disaster films in the mid-1970s, a craze most associated with Universal's own Airport films and Irwin Allen’s productions. Obviously, The Hindenburg recounts the tale of the great zeppelin’s ill-fated final flight from Germany to Lakehurst, New Jersey in May 1937. But thanks to the popular obsession with enigma and conspiracy in ‘70s pop culture, and to Michael M. Mooney’s credited source book, the already dramatic tale has been beefed up with the speculative proposition that the airship was sabotaged by anti-Nazi dissidents. Ever-mischievous Columbo creators Richard Levinson and William Link penned the storyline (although the script is credited to Wise’s regular writing collaborator Nelson Gidding) and the plot’s machinations have a certain similarity to those of Columbo’s punctilious adversaries: a crime based in the presumption of clockwork precision that breaks down in the face of messy reality, forcing a crisis. The detective figure here however is Ritter, a Luftwaffe intelligence officer who’s recently completed a successful and well-rewarded stint overseeing Condor Legion bombing operations in the Spanish Civil War. Goebbels (David Mauro) personally hands Ritter the job of investigating the possibility of sabotage, suggested in a letter sent by a woman living in New York, endangering one of the Nazi regime’s great prestige coups.  

The Zeppelin Company’s head Hugo Eckener (Herbert Nelson) sends company veteran Captain Ernst Lehman (Richard Dysart) to help Ritter in protecting the Hindenburg, and Ritter gets additional, rather less wanted help in the form of an SS agent, Martin Vogel (Roy Thinnes), posing as a photographer. The airship offers a gallery of types and suspects, some drawn from the ranks of real passengers, particularly Robert Clary as acrobat and clown Joseph Spah and Gig Young as advertising executive Edward Douglas. Others come from a pool of familiar dramatic types, like Burgess Meredith and Rene Auberjonois as a pair of card sharps. Ritter has to parse distracting machinations, like attempts to manipulate the Breslau family (headed by Alan Oppenheimer and Katherine Helmond), a clan of wholesome German-Americans with Jewish heritage, into a refugee-aiding diamond smuggling operation, and Douglas’ attempts to pull off a business coup by outpacing the Queen Mary to Manhattan. Ritter also finds himself thrust into gallant contact with the widow of a former air force comrade, Countess Ursula von Reugen (Anne Bancroft), whose cultivated aura of imperious force and artful dissolution partly covers up her lingering depression from her husband’s death and her rage at the Nazis for appropriating her property at Peenemünde for rocket research. Her knowledge of such secrets might impede her hopes of reunion with her daughter, currently at school in the US. But Ritter’s attention is pulled relentlessly towards a crewmember, the rigger Boerth, a former Hitler youth leader whose current girlfriend is a radical. He hovers high in the Hindenburg’s spider’s-nest interior, watching over all with an air of peculiar knowing and boding intensity.

The Hindenburg doesn’t have the carnival-barker verve of Allen’s films or the trashtastic appeal of former Lewton classmate Mark Robson’s Earthquake (1974), and it’s hobbled a little by an indecisive script that doesn’t seem to know whether it wants to emulate the familiar disaster movie programme or strike off into different territory: suffice to say it's at its best when doing the latter. Allen’s films took their hoary essence from their beleaguered bands of stars struggling for salvation, both celebrating and mocking the remaining work ethic of old Hollywood in the midst of the new wave tyros and which would soon resolve into the sanitised orgies of The Love Boat. Whereas The Hindenburg is half-hearted in offering up a similar panoply, most of whom don’t matter, not even as mechanisms in a whodunit, as it becomes obvious quite quickly who the impending arsonist is. What the film does have is, however, is Wise’s filmmaking stature, a top-notch cast, and a lush and elegant production that recreates a time at once still relatively recent to when the film was made and yet also entirely bygone. Made two years before Star Wars officially kicked off the special effects revolution in pop cinema, The Hindenburg’s effects, supervised by Albert Whitlock and which won an Oscar, are extremely impressive. More importantly, they’re used to evoke a sense of period atmosphere and grandeur, fleshed out by cinematographer Robert Surtees’ subtle colour effects and Wise’s sense of theatre, constantly capturing the airship sliding in and out of cloud and hovering high above glistening seas and teetering castles of white ice, a thought bubble of human ingenuity soon to be a ghost born on the cusp of an age of tragedy. Wise’s hunt for a sense of connection to the event and desire to elide excessive artifice drives him to recreate the finale with exacting reference to the newsreel footage of the event, and to close the film with Herb Morrison’s famous eyewitness broadcast offered as a haunting relic and grace note.

Wise generates an eerie, near-dreamlike atmosphere in the sequences when Ritter, Boerth, and Vogel stalk each-other in the airship’s grand interior, a technological cathedral and a floating bomb with only the drone of engines for company thousands of feet above the ocean – it’s here where The Hindenburg catches my attention rather than the Grand Hotel knock-offs in the passenger lounge. There’s also a strong political dimension to what might have been simple romantic melodrama based in historical disaster a la Titanic (1997), with which it shares an elegiac sense of disaster marking pivots of ages. The film evokes the time of Wise’s youth and sees the director make use of techniques he developed with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane (1941), like incorporating documentary and fictional footage together, engaging with the tactile nature of film stock itself to work like a reverse historian, concealing the joins between authenticity and speculation. The Hindenburg, when it finds it focus, becomes an interesting portrait in personal reaction to the impending moral question of an era. The tale gets most of its thrust from the uneasy network of refugees and state representatives aboard the airship and key interactions between Ritter and Vogel, performing the same duty but quite properly despising one-another, and Ritter and Boerth, who find an uneasy understanding couched in their rapidly coinciding senses of duty. Ritter, a patriot and militarist who confesses he was proud when Hitler finally brought Germany’s air force back into the light, is now riddled with doubt and pain, with his great labour being used to bomb Guernica, whilst his son fell to his death whilst engaging in anti-Semitic shenanigans. 

The good Colonel finds himself constantly trapped in a place between official duty and the new reality he’s confronted by and swapping barbed exchanges with Vogel, who takes to his role as a representative of Nazism with far more enthusiasm even as he plots to sleep with the Breslau’s daughter Valier (Jean Rasey). Annoyed by the tense and strict mood aboard the ship, Spahl and cabaret artist Reed Channing (Peter Donat) stage an artistic insurrection by giving a performance lampooning Hitler, a skit Pruss indulges until it gets pointed enough to threaten careers, at which point he sharply but diplomatically declares, “Our senses of humour are different.” Meanwhile the Countess plays upper class dissolution like a pro, the cliché of the displaced grande dame given a jolt of life by Bancroft as she puffs away on hashish, wallops the card cheats at their own game, and languishes in negligée-clad neglect in her cabin, damning the tide of new domination by thugs without breeding or, worse, imagination. Durning gives an amusing performance as the bluntly commanding Pruss, who keeps calm, clipped control of his vessel in spite of irritable passengers and Lehman’s presence as one more captain than the ship needs, making constant, sarcastic sport of the fact the US airship fleet keeps crashing. Atherton, who, years before he became more firmly wedged in pop culture memory playing jerks in the '80s, was an up-and-coming star in the mid-’70s (see also The Day of the Locust, 1975), and he's memorably icy-eyed as Boerth, whose fury with the Nazis and desire to make a spectacular but non-violent stand is defined by humanistic feeling, and yet coalesces on some indefinable level with the schooling of a Hitlerian youth nonetheless. His project fails so abominably his only comfort is saving the life of a dog. 

Wise keeps the thriller aspect in line by insisting on stringent detail and a docu-drama-like sense of the importance of interlocking detail, an attitude that pays off in the film’s climactic scenes as seemingly ordinary frustrations, like the difficulty of landing the zeppelin on a blustery day, are intercut with struggles and confrontations charged with deadly significance. A great suspense sequence comes half-way as Boerth and other crew members have to labour to stitch up a rip in the fabric of the zeppelin’s rear fin, caused inadvertently by Boerth’s lurking and which sees him almost killed in his fixated efforts to avoid what he plans to achieve under more controlled conditions. The Hindenburg might also count as a sleek mockery of familiar ticking bomb narratives as, enforced by history, it builds to a very traditional sequence of trying to defuse an explosive device but with our hero suddenly dissolving in a flash of blinding light, his end the overture to a calamity, but also thankfully saving him from anymore stripped illusions. It's a near-cosmic diminuendo that rhymes with the apocalyptic comedy of errors at the end of The Andromeda Strain and also with the more transcendent version of the same at the end of Star Trek – The Motion Picture. The climactic recreation of the infamous explosion and crash comes, a trifle disappointingly on first glance but with an underlying rigour of construction, as a black-and-white blend of recreation and newsreel footage. Wise uses stop frames to divide the disaster into blocks of concurrent incident, vignettes of amazing escape in the sudden, hideous furore of the conflagration, a random zone of life and death where the good and evil some of the characters have wrought counting for nothing, only the swiftness of survival reflex. I wouldn’t argue much with the proposition that a film with such a subject, cast, and crew should have added up to something greater, but it earns its place in Wise’s strong, perpetually underrated later career. Bonus points for David Shire’s score, and look for Joe Turkel as a cop and former Roger Corman alum Betsy Jones-Moreland as a stewardess.

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