“The Hindenburg” (1975): Fact & Fiction

by Dan Grossman on June 10, 2010

dvd-coverThe Hindenburg is a 1975 film directed by Robert Wise about the German zeppelin Hindenburg and the Hindenburg disaster of May 6, 1937.

The basic plot of the movie — that the zeppelin was sabotaged by an anti-Nazi crew member — is entirely fictional, but the film’s detailed sets and its depiction of life on board the airship are remarkably accurate.

The movie was part of the 1970’s “Disaster Film” genre which included Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), and Earthquake (1974).  The Hindenburg follows the “Grand Hotel” formula, which involves a large cast of characters whose stories and subplots are revealed as the film moves toward a dramatic conclusion.  Most of the characters in the film are based on historical figures, who have been dramatized with considerable poetic license in some cases.

The Main Characters

Colonel Franz Ritter (George C. Scott)

Based on Colonel Fritz Erdmann

Fritz Erdmann and "Franz Ritter"

Fritz Erdmann | “Franz Ritter”

The character of Franz Ritter is based on Luftwaffe Colonel Fritz Erdmann, but unlike the fictional Ritter, there is no evidence that Col. Erdmann had any duties relating to security during Hindenburg’s last flight.  It was common practice for both German and American military officers to fly aboard Hindenburg to study flight operations, navigation procedures, and weather forecasting techniques, and there is no reason to believe that Erdmann had any other function during the flight.  (Erdmann was commandant of the aviation section of the German Military Signal Communications School, in Halle an der Saal, and was accompanied on Hindenburg’s last flight by two other Luftwaffe officers, Major Hans-Hugo Witt and Lieutenant Claus Hinkelbein.)

One incident in the film does mirror historical fact; shortly before departure, Erdmann did summon his wife to the ship for one final farewell.

  • Update, 5 June 2015:  Earlier versions of the screenplay called this character Kessler; it was changed to Ritter shortly before filming.

Joseph Goebbels: “There is no resistance movement, Colonel!”
Colonel Ritter: “That’s reassuring… coming from the Minister of Propaganda.”

Ursula, the Countess (Anne Bancroft)

countess-goering-smoking

“Göring adores it”

Fictional Character

Some commentators have compared the Countess to passenger Margaret Mather, but there is little to connect the two women; the Countess was a sexy German woman traveling to visit her daughter, while Miss Mather was a sprightly but 58-year old American who never married or had children.  But both the fictional Countess and the real-life Margaret Mather escaped the disaster simply by walking down the passsenger boarding steps as the burning zeppelin reached the ground.

And in one other matter, the Countess was true to history:  Göring did adore it.

The Countess:  “Oh Franz… If I told you what was going on at Peenemünde...”

Karl Boerth (William Atherton)

Based on Erich Spehl

Erich Spehl and "Karl Boerth"

Erich Spehl | “Karl Boerth”

The most inaccurate and unfair portrayal of the film is that of “Karl Boerth,” who is based on rigger Erich Spehl.  The film, and the book on which it was based, depict Boerth/Spehl as a saboteur who caused the disaster.  In reality, there is not the slightest piece of meaningful evidence that Spehl was in any way responsible for the tragedy.

Karl Boerth: “My duty, Sir.”

Martin Vögel (Roy Thinnes)

Fictional Character

The fictional Martin Vögel is the villain of The Hindenburg; a Gestapo officer posing as the ship’s photographer.  Hindenburg did have a semi-official photographer aboard its final flight, a 28-year old photographer from Bonn named Karl Otto Clemens, who agreed to take publicity photographs for the Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei in return for half-price fare across the Atlantic.  But there is no reason to believe that the real Clemens was in any way associated with the Gestapo, or that would have needed cologne more than anybody else.

Martin Vögel: “I have a date with my little Jewish model.  I am curious to try one before they’re all gone.”

The Officers and Crew

Captain Ernst Lehman (Richard Dysart)

Historical Character

Captain Ernst Lehmann

Captain Ernst Lehmann

Captain Ernst Lehmann was an experienced zeppelin commander who was aboard Hindenburg as director of the German Zeppelin Transport Company (Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei). But while the film portrays Lehmann as being hostile to the National Socialist regime (“Dr. Eckener and I are out of favor at the Chancellery”), the opposite was true, and the historical Lehmann was known for his cooperation with the Nazis.  Lehmann was named director of the Nazified Reederei because of his willingness to work with the Hitler regime, and he famously risked the safety of the Hindenburg to please the Nazis by making a propaganda flight in March, 1936.

The film’s Lehmann is on a mission to obtain helium, but the historical Lehmann somewhat arrogantly dismissed the need for helium, arguing, according to Zeppelin official Willy von Meister, that the Germans “have been operating our commercial service with hydrogen very successfully for years.”

Ernst Lehmann: “We’ve been in no danger. The ship is completely bonded together.”

Captain Max Pruss (Charles Durning)

Historical Character

Captain Max Pruss

Captain Max Pruss

Captain Max Pruss was in command of Hindenburg on the ship’s final flight. Like his character in the film, the historical Pruss was known for his sardonic and even sarcastic comments, but he was also admired for treating his subordinates with fairness and respect.

The film shows Pruss rejecting the advice and recommendations of the senior Lehmann (“I’ll do the worrying this trip, Captain”), but it is unlikely the real Pruss would have treated Lehmann so dismissively, and it is possible, in fact, that Pruss deferred significant operational control to Lehmann during Hindenburg’s ill-fated landing attempt at Lakehurst.

Max Pruss: “Thank you very kindly, I thought it was a Christmas tree.”

Dimmler (Rex Holman)

Historical Figure

Wilhelm Dimmler

Wilhelm Dimmler

There was an officer named Wilhelm Dimmler aboard the Hindenburg, but unlike his movie counterpart, the real Dimmler was an engineering officer who worked in the hull of the airship, and not a watch officer who worked in the control car as depicted in the movie.

Stewardess Imhoff (Betsy Jones-Moreland)

Historical Figure

Emilie Imhoff

Emilie Imhoff

Emilie Imhoff was the world’s first and only airship stewardess. She was probably located in the area of the B Deck passenger cabins at the time of the accident, and she was killed in the crash.

Rigger Knorr (Ted Gehring)

Historical Figure

"Ludwig Knorr"

“Ludwig Knorr”

The Ludwig Knorr of the movie is a depicted as a lower-ranking crew member, who is obsequious toward the ship’s officers (“Please forgive my appearance, Captain”), but the historical Ludwig Knorr was Hindenburg’s Chief Rigger and one of the most senior and respected members of the crew, having been a rigger since 1912.

The film’s Knorr has a knife with “a nick in the guard from that fight we got in in Shanghai when we went around the world in the Graf.” The real Knorr did, in fact, travel around the world in the Graf Zeppelin in 1929, but the ship never landed in China. (And as observant movie watchers will notice, it was the blade of the knife, and not the guard, which was lost.)

Knorr did participate in a dangerous, in-flight repair of a zeppelin’s covering as depicted in the film, but the incident took place aboard LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin in 1928, and not the Hindenburg in 1937.

Graf Zeppelin repair, 1938; "Hindenburg repair, 1937"

Graf Zeppelin repair, 1928 | “Hindenburg repair, 1937″

Knorr: “Arrest me captain? Because my knife was borrowed?”

Cabin Boy

Based on Werner Franz

Werner Franz

Werner Franz

Hindenburg did have a cabin boy to assist the stewards; 14-year old Werner Franz, who was almost trapped on the wreckage but miraculously survived the disaster when he was drenched by water from a broken tank or pipe above him.

The Passengers

The Breslau Family

breslau

The Breslau Family: All-American and 1/4 Jewish

Based on the Doehner Family

  • Hermann Doehner
  • Matilde Doehner
  • Irene Doehner
  • Walter Doehner
  • Werner Doehner
The Doehner Family: Herman, Matilde, Irene, and Walter & Werner giving Hitler Salute

The Doehner Family: Germans in Mexico.  Walter & Werner give the Hitler Salute.

The five members of the Breslau family seem to parallel the Doehner family, but while the fictional Mr. Breslau was an American with a Jewish grandmother (“Mrs. Milstein”), whose children were all “born in the States” (“A couple of cowboys,” as Col. Ritter calls the two Breslau boys), the Doehners were a Volksdeutsche (ethnic German) family living in Mexico who felt a close connection with their German homeland; home movies show the Doehner children giving the stiff-armed Nazi salute.

Mrs. Breslau:  “I still say the French Line has the best society.”

Joe Späh (Robert Clary)

Historical Character

The historical and fictional Spähs greeting their wives

The historical and fictional Spähs greeting their wives

Acrobat Joseph Späh, who performed under the stage name “Ben Dova” (it was a more innocent time), was returning to the United States with his Alsatian dog, Ulla.  Ulla spent the flight in a freight room toward the tail of the ship, and Späh’s unaccompanied trips through the hull to visit his dog caused Hindenburg Captain Max Pruss and Chief Steward Heinrich Kubis later to suggest that he might have been responsible for the fire, which began near Ulla’s cage.  Lakehurst commander Charles Rosendahl was also influenced by these suggestions, and encouraged the FBI to investigate Späh.  After an extensive investigation, the the FBI concluded there was no reason to believe Späh had anything to do with the accident, and of course Pruss, who commanded the ship, and Rosendahl, who recommended landing during electrically charged conditions, both had a strong personal incentive to blame the disaster on something other than their own decisions.

Joseph Späh: “Oh goody, we are going to play doctor.”

Edward Douglas (Gig Young)

Historical Character

Edward Douglas

Edward Douglas

The real Edward Douglas, like his movie counterpart, was an advertising man specializing in the automobile industry.  Douglas was based in Frankfurt as Director of European Operations for the McCann/Erickson advertising agency, where he worked for General Motors, but the movie’s subplot, involving coded telegrams and a race to beat a competitor to New York, was completely fictional.

Edward Douglas:  “Here’s my special pass”

Eliot Howell III (Colby Chester)

Based on Peter Belin Jr.

Peter Belin, Jr. and Eliot Howell, III

Peter Belin, Jr. | Eliot Howell, III

Ivy Leaguer Eliot Howell III is based on 24-year old Ferdinand Lammot “Peter” Belin Jr.  But while the real Peter Belin was a graduate of Yale, when Major Napier asks Eliot Howell if he will “defend the honor of Old Eli” by betting that Mr. Breslau’s pen will stand in the bar, Howell replies “It’s Harvard,” to which Napier guilefully replies: “the gentleman from Yale wagers $100.00!”

Emilio Pajetta (Burgess Meredith) and Major Napier (Rene Auberjonois)

Fictional Characters

pajetta-napier-ritter

Mr. Pajetta, Major Napier, and Colonel Ritter

Major Napier:  “Do you know this ruddy blimp is filled with hydrogen?
Colonel Ritter: “I’ll make a note of that.”

Reed Channing (Peter Donat) and Mrs. Channing (Joanna Moore)

Fictional Characters

 

"Reed Channing" and Joseph Spah

Some commentators have seen a similarity between the Channings and real-life passengers Leonhard and Getrud Adelt, but other than being a husband-and-wife involved in a creative field, there is little similarity.  The Adelts were German writers and journalists; Leonhard had collaborated with Ernst Lehmann on his autobiography, and the Adelts were flying on the Hindenburg as guests of Captain Lehmann and the DZR.  The fictional Channings are a well-to-do American couple, and the husband is a theatrical producer.

In the film, Reed Channing plays the piano during an anti-Nazi concert with fellow passenger Joseph Späh.  While Hindenburg did carry an aluminum piano the previous year, the piano was not aboard the zeppelin during its last flight, and the concert, of course, was just a Hollywood device to make it more palatable for modern audiences to watch a movie set aboard a Nazi airship.

Reed Channing:  “OK… You’re the captain… you want a concert, I’ll give you a concert.”

Other Historical Characters

Dr. Eckener (Herbert Nelson)

Historical Figure

Dr. Hugo Eckener

Dr. Hugo Eckener

Hugo Eckener was the internationally respected leader of the Zeppelin enterprise who, as depicted in the film, was known for his hostility to the Nazi regime.

The movie-Eckener claims he is out of favor with the Nazi government because he refused to name the airship after the Führer, but in fact Hitler never wanted the ship named for himself; he thought zeppelins were dangerous and did not want his name associated with an aircraft which might crash or burn.

Captain Fellows (Stephen Elliott)

Based on Charles Rosendahl

Charles Rosendahl and "Captain Fellows"

Charles Rosendahl | “Captain Fellows”

The character of Captain Fellows was based upon American naval officer Charles E. Rosendahl, the commanding officer of the Lakehurst Naval Air Station at the time of the Hindenburg disaster, who was still alive when the film was made in 1975.

Captain Fellows: “Flash red, dammit, flash red.”

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