The Good Captain and the Bad Captain: Joseph Vilsmaier's 'Die Gustloff' and the Erosion of Complexity

in German Politics and Society
Author: Bill Niven
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This article provides an interpretation of Josef Vilsmaier's two-part television feature film, Die Gustloff (2008), which depicts the sinking of that ship in January 1945. It argues that Vilsmaier, at the expense of historical fact, pins blame for the fateful decisions that led to the ship being vulnerable to attack on the Navy, while simultaneously seeking to exculpate and even glorify the Merchant Navy representatives on board. Die Gustloff seeks to distinguish between a “bad” captain and a “good” one, between hard-hearted military indifference and uncorrupted civilian decency in the face of the plight of German refugees. Generally, in its portrayal of the civilian as a realm untainted by Nazism, it seeks to resist trends in contemporary historiography that show such distinctions to be untenable. It is thus deeply revisionist in character, and, in many ways, represents the nadir of the “Germans as victims” trend in contemporary German culture.