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Film / The Hindenburg (1975)

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The Hindenburg is a 1975 Disaster Movie, directed by Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, Star Trek: The Motion Picture) and featuring an All-Star Cast including George C. Scott, Anne Bancroft, William Atherton, Roy Thinnes, Gig Young, Burgess Meredith, Charles Durning, and Richard Dysart.

The film details the final trans-Atlantic voyage of the eponymous German zeppelin in 1937, and its tragic conclusion. While the real-life incident remains clouded with conflicting theories as to the underlying cause of the disaster — a number of which get name-checked herein — the film runs with a conspiracy theory (as did the book it's based upon), depicting the Hindenburg's demise as an act of politically-motivated sabotage.

The story unfolds rather like a murder/crime mystery: Col. Franz Ritter (Scott) of the German Luftwaffe is assigned as special security officer aboard the Hindenburg for her latest voyage to America, after the German embassy receives a bomb threat. Ritter must investigate the crew and passengers, many of whom have something to hide, and figure out who is plotting to bomb the airship and try to prevent it. Read your history books again to see how well that turned out.


Tropes found in this film:

  • Anti-Villain: Played with. Despite the story being told mainly from the German persective, the Nazi regime is most emphatically not given a Historical Hero Upgrade here, and most characters are treated as good or villainous depending upon their personal attitudes toward the Reich. On the other hand, the Hindenburg crew clearly support the regime, since they take offense at the Nazi-bashing song-and-dance number; yet the crew themselves are never depicted in a negative light — indeed, during the climax Captain Pruss is downright heroic. (Dr. Hugo Eckener, the director of The Zeppelin Company shown briefly in the movie, was a notable anti-Nazi in real life, earning him considreable ire from the Nazis. The year before, he had been blacklisted after blasting Captain Lehmann for taking the Hindenburg up in strong winds for a propaganda flight, causing damage.)
  • Art Shift:
    • The film opens with a vintage newsreel covering the history of rigid-body airships, displayed in the original Academy-standard Aspect Ratio before segueing to glorious widescreen for the film proper.
    • At the climax, the film switches to a Deliberately Monochrome, grainy style to simulate newsreel footage of the Hindenburg crash, and remains in this style through the Dénouement all the way until the closing shot and end credits.
  • Beneath Notice: The Reich considers La Résistance to be this, and this is the entire motivation behind the bombing of the Hindenburg — a political body blow to the very symbol of Nazi power which will force the regime to recognize the Resistance movement.
  • Big "NO!"!: Captain Pruss lets one out when the bomb goes off just as the airship is preparing to touch down.
  • Blown Across the Room: Vogel, when he catches Ritter with the bomb. Vogel lives through it; Ritter does not.
  • Bookends: The opening credits unspool over beauty shots of the Hindenburg flying through the clouds; the closing image is of the Hindenburg vanishing into the heavens.
  • Card Sharp / Professional Gambler: Pajetta and Napier are a pair of con men who travel luxury liners and bilk the other passengers by cheating at cards. Even more so the Countess, who figures out their cheat system in very short order and turns it to her advantage.
  • Cool Airship: The Hindenburg, of course.
  • Defector from Decadence: The Countess has no intention of returning to Germany. And Breslau is smuggling diamonds in an attempt to buy his Jewish family's passage out of there too.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: When the bomb goes off, the film switches to monochrome.
  • Developing Doomed Characters: Typical for the genre — not to mention the fact that, due to the timing of the real-life incident, the actual disaster can't strike until the film's climax, so we've got plenty of time to... umm, kill.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • Col. Ritter's first few lines of dialogue are criticism of the political direction the Reich is taking: "We're turning into some kind of Gestapo!"
    • The Countess' haughty complaining over having her luggage searched.
    • As the passengers congregate in the dining/common area just before liftoff, Joe Spah, the circus performer, can be seen doing silly mime acts in the background.
  • Everyone Is a Suspect: Particularly when the Gestapo is as paranoid as they are, literally any little thing can be interpreted as motive. To be fair, these people are all acting pretty shifty, and all have legitimate reason to hate/fear/distrust the Nazis.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Even forgiving that this is a Disaster Movie, it is based upon a historical event, so it's pretty clear from the beginning how this is going to end — a point which was roundly mocked by Roger Ebert. To be fair, the film does try to circumvent this obstacle by shifting the focus from what's going to happen to how, and by whom.
  • Foreshadowing: When the canvas needs to be fixed, the repair crew have large knives well visible in their belts. The bomb is hidden in one of the knives' handle.
  • Freudian Excuse: Ritter's hate for the Gestapo stems from his son, a member of a Hitler Youth group, dying while defacing a synagogue. It's stated to have been an accident, but is left open to interpretation. This helps Ritter sympathize with the bomber.
  • Genre Buster: Marketed as a Disaster Movie, looks like a historical drama, plays out like an Agatha Christie novel.
  • The Hero Dies: More than that, even: Ritter is the one who sets off the bomb.
  • Hiding Your Heritage: Breslau's grandmother was Jewish, but he hides this from his wife and children (as well as the Nazis) and claims to have no relatives in Germany.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: The Countess using the Card Sharps' own cheat system against them.
  • Honor Before Reason: Ritter has no love for the Nazi regime; but he refuses to be a deserter. Admittedly, part of the reason is that he doesn't think anyone would take him in or believe he'd truly deserted.
  • Hope Spot:
    • Lehman manages to walk away from the crash, dazed but seemingly none the worse for wear... and then he suddenly drops dead on the tarmac, his back completely burned away.
    • [spoiler:Boerth]] is seen on the ground, injured but alive, after being injured by the bomb and falling through the floor. Then he passes out from his injuries and flaming debris lands on top of him.
  • IKEA Weaponry: Boerth has the bomb hidden inside the handle of his military-issue knife. Deconstructed when the blade drops out of the knife while he's setting up the bomb. Everyone is alerted that something is up because this incident was not reported as per procedure, and it allows Vogel to zero in on the bomber.
  • Impeded Communication: The Countess plays cards with Napier and Pajetta, a pair of CardSharps who fleece the gullible on luxury cruises. The Countess quickly deduces their shenanigans, as well as their signal system. She discretely edits these signals so that it's their wallets that get drained, rather than hers.
  • Improbable Infant Survival:
    • Of course the children survive. Double-subverted with the teenage porter/bellhop; it looks like he's about to succumb to the flames, but then the floor gives out beneath him, dumping him down to the ground where he can make his escape. In reality, this was averted as Irene Doehner had died in the crash along with her father.
    • Boerth uses his last strength to save the dalmatian.
  • It Will Never Catch On: The fake clairvoyant who claims she had psychic visions of the disaster also makes other bizarre predictions, including a claim that Edward VIII never going to go through with marrying Wallis Simpson.
  • Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: Deconstructed: Vogel beats Boerth senseless in an attempt to learn where he planted the bomb; unfortunately, this leaves Boerth barely conscious and thus incapable of even answering.
  • Karma Houdini: Vogel is quite the Hate Sink, showing cheerful awareness of Hitler's plan to exterminate the Jews, relishing the Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique, and indirectly contributing to every death in the disaster by hindering the people who could stop the bomb from going off. He manages to survive the disaster with only minor injuries.
  • La Résistance: Which the regime strenuously denies even exists; but Boerth is part of it.
  • Last Note Nightmare: The climax plays out over an extended, high-pitched and discordant note.
  • Let Off by the Detective: The two card sharks are placed under arrest, with cops on the ground waiting to take them into custody. However, the cops let them leave after seeing them helping the Countess escape the burning zeppelin.
  • Logo Joke: The Universal logo at the start of the film is the version that would have been in use in 1937.
  • The Mel Brooks Number: "There's A Lot To Be Said For The Fuhrer". While the lyrics themselves appear to praise the Nazi regime — at least, until the end — the mime-and-dance act that accompanies it is outright mocking and hostile. Captain Pruss is not amused.
  • Milking the Giant Cow: Spah's part during the performance of "There's A Lot To Be Said For The Fuhrer" is a dance/mime routine, using exaggerated gestures and movements to mock the Nazis.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: A majority of the characters are German; no one even attempts a German accent. Could be a case of Translation Convention or was done intentionally.
  • Oh, Crap!: Ritter has two in the climax. First, he locates the bomb, but clearly has no idea of how to defuse it. Then, he realizes that the bomb is going to go off that very second. In fact, it's possible that he may have inadvertently set it off, himself.
  • Oh, the Humanity!: At the end of the film, the original recording of the Trope Maker is played while we see the Hindenburg flying into the heavens.
  • Overly Nervous Flop Sweat: Boerth is understandably tense as he plants the bomb. This very likely contributes to the deconstruction of IKEA Weaponry, spoilered above.
  • Pseudo Crisis: As previously stated, we've plenty of time to kill.
    • At one point the airship travels through a fog bank and collects a goodly dose of static which runs through the metal structure, alarming the passengers... then just goes away.
    • Later the characters have to fix a tear in the zeppelin's outer skin to prevent her sinking into the ocean.
  • Red Herring: Ritter poirots his way through the passengers and their various shifty dealings to find the bomber.
  • The Reveal: Zig-zagged to hell and back; the plot is kicked off when a letter predicting the bombing of the Hindenburg arrives at the German embassy in Washington D.C. Upon investigating, however, the writer proves to be an old crackpot who only thinks she's clairvoyant. But... there really is a bomber on board the Hindenburg. But in the end, he's not the one to do the deed; rather, the man who was supposed to prevent the bombing is the one who sets it off.
  • Rule of Symbolism:
    • As the chaos winds down, the camera pans over the wreckage to find one tattered piece of the Hindenburg's outer skin, still burning, with the airship's name (or, more accurately, what's left of it) prominently printed on it.
    • The film's closing shot is of the Hindenburg, flying amongst the clouds and disappearing as if ascending into Heaven.
  • Shout-Out: Several to the Titanic. One example is when they almost crash into a field of icebergs.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • The sets were highly praised as being incredibly faithful to the real Hindenburg interiors.
    • Two successful escapes from the doomed airship — a woman who walked off when the boarding ramps simply dropped open, and a circus performer who dangled from a mooring rope, dropped 20 feet and limped away — are also faithfully depicted, as is one epically unsuccessful one (see Hope Spot, above).
    • Watch closely as the anchor lines drop and then just as the explosion happens and you'll see Greg Mullavey as Herb Morrison making the famous recording. Over the closing shot, Morrison's actual recording is heard. He was one of the technical advisors on the picture.
  • Spanner in the Works: The bad weather at Lakehurst. The bomber's target is explicitly the airship, not the people; Boerth set it up in such a way that passengers and crew could debark and be safely away long before it went off... assuming the ship landed on time, which it didn't. Although, there WAS still time to stop the bomb...
  • Stock Footage: Newsreel clips of the disaster are spliced into the climax.
  • Suicide Mission: The saboteur plans to stay on the zeppelin and broadcast a radio message taking responsibility for the bombing seconds before the bomb goes off.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: Ritter invokes this with Vogel, and by extension the entire Gestapo which he despises.
  • Vehicle Title: The Hindenburg.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: A more immediate, short-term variant; photographic icons of the cast appear onscreen, with a narrator detailing whether each person survived or died in the crash. The last survivor listed is the dog.
  • While Rome Burns: One passenger, despondent that he couldn't reach New York ahead of a business competitor (due to the delay at Lakehurst), gets stone drunk; when the disaster strikes, he is shown barely reacting to the chaos. "Some landing!"
  • Widescreen Shot: The opening image of the film proper is an impressive shot of the Hindenburg sitting beside her hangar. Numerous such shots of the airship abound throughout the film.


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