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Walter Zerlett-Olfenius (7 April 1897 – 18 April 1975) was a German screenwriter, who worked on films for UFA (Universum Film AG), from 1936 until 1945. His most notable project, was the 1943 Nazi film about the sinking of the RMS Titanic. The film cost four million Reichsmarks (approximately $180 million US), making it one of the most expensive films ever made.
After attending schools in Hanover and his hometown of Wiesbaden, Zerlett-Olfenius enlisted with the Fusilier Regiment 80 in Wiesbaden at the outbreak of World War I in 1914. He initially served as a cadet, and (as of summer 1915) was a lieutenant in the later course of the war. Because of his language skills (English and French) in the Intelligence Service (NOB) of the General Staff work, after the war ended in 1918, he served briefly in the protection Regiment Greater Berlin.
In the early 1920s, Zerlett-Olfenius studied with the son of the music director at Berlin's Friedrich-Wilhelm University and attended the Graduate School. At the same time, he made his first professional steps in civilian life in the insurance industry. From 1922 to 1924, he worked as general manager and later as a partner in a Berlin factory. After losing his fortune as a purchasing agent for the British company London General Company of Trade, in 1925, Zerlett-Olfenius joined as Secretary General for German Radio Technical Association (DFTV). Serving the DFTV, Zerlett-Olfenius first worked as a writer (The Origin of the Aurora Borealis), created its press releases, wrote pamphlets (DFTV versus radio interference, electricity industry and radio interference) and was involved in radio magazines. 1933/34 Zerlett-Olfenius served as speaker of the Reich Broadcasting Company, but in 1934 finally moved into the film business and worked various jobs (recording and production), along with his brother, screenwriter and director Hans H. Zerlett.
Active as a screenwriter, since 1935, Zerlett-Olfenius fused the first part of his hyphenated familial name – Zerlett (his mother's maiden name – Olfenius, was his father's name), and began a close collaboration with director Herbert Selpin, that would last until Selpin's death during the making of Titanic. Zerlett-Olfenius authored the templates for all common film genres. Particularly successful in his dramatic stories, including two adventure films and a marriage and travel material, and a Nazi propaganda film, all of them were with Hans Albers.
1943 saw the release of the disaster film he had written for Selpin; Titanic. Ostensibly an early example of a disaster film, the UFA version gave the work considerable weight as anti-British propaganda. In Zerlett-Olfenius' manuscript, the chairman and managing director of White Star Line, J. Bruce Ismay, is ruthless and greedy. The captain, Edward Smith, is portrayed as weak and inefficient and only the ship's German first officer, Petersen, – a fictional character created by Joseph Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry – shows strength of character and in the final scene as moralizing against Ismay in court.
While filming Titanic, Selpin allegedly made disparaging remarks about the German chances of victory in the war, and about the strength and morale of the armed forces. Zerlett-Olfenius reported this to his close friend, Hans Hinkel, saying Selpin had "vile calumnies and insults German soldiers at the front and front-line officers" of himself. Selpin was subsequently arrested and was killed in his cell after refusing to recant (though the official cause of death was suicide).
Imprisonment and death
In August 1947, Zerlett-Olfenius was sentenced by a German court to four years in a labour camp for his involvement in Selpin's death. Fifty percent of his assets were confiscated. This sentence was revoked in 1949 on appeal. Together with his actress wife, Eva Tinschmann, he retired to Rosshaupten in Bavaria. Zerlett-Olfenius never again worked in the film industry. He died in 1975.
|1936||Skandal um die Fledermaus||Tofa Tonfilm-Fabrikations||Writer.|
|1936||Spiel an Bord||Neucophon Tonfilm-Produktion||Writer.|
|1936||Romance (also known as Romanze and Die Frau des anderen)||Patria-Film||Writer.|
|1937||Alarm in Peking||Minerva-Tonfilm GmbH||Writer.|
|1938||Nuits de princes||Les Productions I.N. Ermolieff||Screenplay.|
|1938||Ab Mitternacht||Ermolieff Films, Tobis Filmkunst||Writer. Dialogue Director.|
|1938||Narren im Schnee||Cinephon-Film GmbH||Screenplay.|
|1939||Wasser für Canitoga||Bavaria Film, Bavaria-Filmkunst||Writer.|
|1940||Ein Mann auf Abwegen||Euphono-Film GmbH, Tobis Filmkunst||Writer.|
|1940||Trenck, der Pandur||Tobis Filmkunst||Writer.|
|1941||Carl Peters||Bavaria Film, Bavaria-Filmkunst||Writer. Edited into Germany Awake! (1968).|
|1943||Die schwache Stunde||Bavaria-Filmkunst||Adaptation.|