Oh, the humanity!
The Hindenburg airship explosion has been the subject of several films and documentaries over the years - some good, some bad. This Hindenburg (full title: Hindenburg: The Last Flight) is the more recent epic miniseries version - a wobbly German-American production which takes a page from James Cameron's Titanic in embellishing a gripping, real-life historic disaster with a totally bogus made-up story. Premiering on Germany's RTL network in 2011, the miniseries eventually made its way to U.S. screens via Encore. Having never watched anything on Encore, based on Hindenburg: The Last Flight I can only assume that it's pay television's version of an elephant graveyard - the spot where epic miniseries go to die.
Hindenburg: The Last Flight's clumsy script indulges in disaster fans' theories as to what really happened on that fateful evening of May 6, 1937. This one actually incorporates two theories: that the Hindenburg crashed and burned from static electricity blending with flammable hydrogen leaking from a hole in the balloon's fuselage, and the idea that it may have exploded from a bomb placed on board. Dull Ben Affleck manqué Maximilian Simonichek stars as Merten Kroger, the handsome engineer who led the design of the iconic zeppelin. We know Merten's a bad boy because, in his introductory scenes, he daringly solo-flies a glider (without knowing how!) while out-of-place Soft Rock blares on the soundtrack. After his craft crash-lands in a river, he's saved by a beautiful photographer by the name of Jennifer (Lauren Lee Smith of CSI). Although Merten thinks Jennifer is just another Fräulein with the hots for him, she is actually the daughter of the powerful American industrialist Edward van Zandt (Stacy Keach). The corrupt oil man sent his wife, Helen (Greta Scacchi), as an emissary to Germany to help convince the Nazi party to buy their vast reserves of helium to power their dirigible fleet - replacing the hydrogen they're currently using. In a myopic quest to prove the flammable element's unsuitability for floating massive balloons, Mr. Van Zandt even arranges to have a ticking bomb placed on the majestic Hinderburg passenger ship - timed to explode after it touches down in America. Little does he realize that the flight got delayed, with his wife and daughter on board with the ticking cargo.
Like a real cross-ocean voyage, Hindenburg's few moments of excitement come at the expense of interminable stretches of "are we there yet?" fake-drama. Before the zeppelin is set for its final voyage, Merten gets wind of van Zandt's devious doings (though he still isn't clear on exactly who's doing it), killing a man in self-defense for knowing too much. As a stowaway on the craft, Merton must avoid the ship's crew and passengers while attempting to sort out the mystery. Meanwhile, the passengers - a cross-section of various 1930s types - have their own contrived peccadilloes to sort out. Merton eventually finds an ally in the lovely Jennifer, but can he locate and diffuse the bomb in time?
Yeesh. Hindenburg: The Last Flight's overly lopsided production sports some nicely done special effects, impressively researched production design, irritating shaky-cam photography, a bunch of cardboard characters (including a Nazi official shot in nauseating close-ups, a la a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon), and a plot which seemed to be dreamt up by a 7 year-old as a post-naptime activity. The story couldn't be any less compelling than if it had zombies (or zombie Nazis!), and the soundtrack has all the actors' voices overdubbed to a disorienting degree. It's likely that the mostly German cast spoke their lines phonetically, which would also account for this film's off-kilter, static atmosphere. Most scenes have the fussy, clunky feel of a videogame cutscene, minus the videogame. This really was a disaster - in more ways than one.
Hindenburg has already been released in Europe as a two-DVD set. Anchor Bay's Region 1 release squeezes all of this three-hour miniseries onto one disc. Each part has its own submenu, however, which implies that it may have originally been intended to be a multi-disc release.
Considering the amount of data packed on one DVD, Hindenburg: The Last Flight's visuals came out pretty decent looking. The disc's 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image has kept compression artifacts to a minimum, and the picture is pleasantly balanced with a good amount of detail in the photography (as long as you don't mind the weird, overly-processed look that many CGI-heavy films sport).
The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is a relatively pristine sounding yet overly fussy sounding mix, with too-prominent dialogue and a strident music/sound effects track competing against each other. Optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles are also provided.
Except for a a preview for The White Queen which auto-plays upon disc insertion, there is no bonus content.
Despite the historically accurate settings and decent CGI effects, Hindenburg: The Last Flight is built around a dopey, interminable story that is (pardon the expression) full of hot air. You might want to stick around for the disaster, however, just to get a vicarious thrill from seeing so many paper-thin characters bite the dust. As the Germans put it, this miniseries is a dumme Verschwendung von Zeit (stupid waste of time). Skip It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.