Jennifer van Zandt (Lauren Lee Smith) shortly before jumping out of the burning airship. Credit: RTL / Erk Lee Steingroever

‘Hindenburg – The Last Flight’ on RTL

On December 11, 2014, German commercial channel RTL will show Hindenburg, the spectacular movie about the Hindenburg disaster of 1937, when the pride of German aviation went up in flames. The art department of MMC Studios reconstructed massive full-size sections of the airship for this film.

The Story:
Frankfurt, May 1937. The Hindenburg, the world’s largest airship, is getting ready to fly to New York. A vehicle of staggering dimensions, it is the pride of Nazi Germany. But it has one serious flaw: due to an American embargo preventing the sale of helium to Germany, the Hindenburg is filled with highly combustible hydrogen gas instead. To Merten Kroeger, an engineer who helped design the Hindenburg, the ship is a stick of dynamite waiting for a spark.

The young man of great charm but modest means has fallen in love with the wealthy Jennifer van Zandt, the daughter of an American industrialist who wants to sell helium to the Germans. Just before the ship takes off, Merten learns how far the industrialist will go: he has had a bomb placed on the airship. What van Zandt didn’t know is that his wife and daughter would be on board. Merten sneaks aboard the airship without a minute to spare.

The young couple is reunited, and despite the great difference in class and social status between them, Jennifer, too, avows her love for Merten. He tells her of the bomb hidden somewhere on the airship. But there is little time for explanations, since Merten must flee: he is being sought for a murder he says he did not commit. Jennifer is confused – is Merten lying to her?

On the run from the crew, Merten overhears Jennifer’s mother telling someone to reset the bomb, as the Hindenburg is expected to land in Lakehurst, near New York, several hours behind schedule. Before he can find out whom she was talking to, he is caught and brutally beaten.

Once proof is found that Merten did not commit the murder and that he is telling the truth about the bomb, the crew begins a race-against-time search to find it – a search for the needle in a haystack.

Jennifer is shocked to learn that her mother was in on the conspiracy. Unfortunately, Mrs. van Zandt also doesn’t know the location of the explosives. And when the only person on board who knows where the dynamite has been hidden plunges into the sea to his death, it looks like nothing can save the Hindenburg anymore. Awaited by festive crowds, photographers and radio reporters, the airship majestically approaches Lakehurst…

Production Notes:
Produced with an international all-star cast and a record budget of over 10 million Euros, this movie is the most elaborate film production in the history of RTL. The art department of MMC Studios in Cologne reconstructed massive full-size sections of the Hindenburg for the film.

This movie the first RTL production shot entirely in English. It features a spectacular cast of international stars.

Maximilian Simonischek has the leading role as the airship’s design engineer Merten Kroeger. The following actors played other important parts: the Canadian actress Lauren Lee Smith (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation), Heiner Lauterbach, Greta Scacchi, Stacy Keach, Ulrich Noethen, Jürgen Schornagel, Christiane Paul, Hannes Jaenicke and Wotan Wilke Moehring. The outstanding cast also includes Justus von Dohnanyi, Pierre Besson, Hinnerk Schoenemann, Robert Seeliger, Antoine Monot Jr., and Andreas Pietschmann.

Scriptwriters Johannes W. Betz, Martin Pristl and Philip LaZebnik, along with director Philipp Kadelbach, tell the moving, suspenseful tale of a great love story and a gripping adventure against a historical backdrop.

The elaborate digital effects portray every dimension of this largest airship ever built and also portray its destruction. These images are almost physically palpable to spectators, in a manner never seen before.

However, many of the movie’s sets were actually built. The interaction of real and digital images makes perceptible the airship project’s overwhelming hubris. The floating journey of luxury and comfort is contrasted with the enormous effort required to realize that journey. It took many years to build the Hindenburg, which was almost as long (804 ft.) as the Titanic, but could accommodate only 50 passengers – as many as a modern regional aircraft. The efforts of hundreds of men were needed for take-off and landing, and for each passenger there was one crew member.

A look under the smooth and elegant skin of the giant airship shows the mad will and courage that inspired the Hindenburg. It was a great challenge for this movie to make spectators understand and feel the dimensions of the gigantic airship and the effort needed to create it.

In early April 2009, production designer Benedikt Herforth and his team began planning the production design. Set construction at the MMC Studios in Cologne began in mid-August.

But first, the zeppelin had to be located dramaturgically; in other words: In which part of the airship can individual scenes be presented? How can spectators orient themselves in such a giant airship?

Before final construction began in June, the set designs were refined in close cooperation with director Philipp Kadelbach. Extensive consultation with the VFX department supervisor, Denis Behnke, was needed to ensure that the physical images matched the digital ones.

The first set built was the control gondola of the Hindenburg. On September 21st and 22nd, 2009, the first scenes were shot on MMC’s soundstage 41 in Cologne, in front of the green screen, where the MMC’s art department built the control gondola with its command bridge.

Scenes on top of the outer skin and at the entry hatch of the zeppelin’s tail fin were also shot in front of the green screen.

MMC’s art department also created various SFX special constructions on MMC’s stage 41. The passenger cabins were built there too – a particular challenge with regard to real explosion and fire scenes.

Scenes at the terminal and of passenger boarding at the former World Airport for Airships in Frankfurt were filmed from September 23rd to 30th at the former airport Butzweilerhof in Cologne. In the 1930s and 40s Butzweilerhof was a major air traffic hub in Germany.

From October 5th to 9th, 2009, filming continued at the former military airfield Hopsten-Dreierwalde in Hoerstel. The gondola (33 ft. in length, 16.5 ft. in height, 5 tons in weight), was moved by heavy load vehicles from MMC’s stage 41 to the airfield, where it was heaved into place by a crane.

The same was done with other airship elements built by the MMC’s art department; e.g. a part of the panoramic deck with a height of 20 ft., the two gangways for passenger boarding, and the 46 ft. long tail fin with the entry hatch, through which protagonist Merten Kroeger secretly enters the airship. Despite its size, this fin did not match reality, as the real tail fin was three times as long and twice as high. Only the computer can portray such a large object.

The scenes of the crash with the great fire were also filmed in Hopsten. Here, the MMC Art Department supplied the model of the ruined and burned airship, from which the protagonists save themselves.

The shooting in Bavaria took place from October 13th to 24th at the Faber-Castell castle in Stein, near Nuremberg. The castle’s architecture and interior design were in unusually good condition as were the valuable and artistic furnishings, which made it the ideal setting for Zandt’s mansion in New York and for the American Consulate in Frankfurt.

Seven of the 13 shooting weeks, from November 3rd to December 15th, were at MMC’s Coloneum studio lot in Cologne-Ossendorf.

MMC’s production facilities are among Europe’s largest. MMC’s soundstage 53 reaches a world record height of 85 ft., and is ideal for a production of Hindenburg’s dimensions, but it was barely high enough to hold the fuselage segment reproduced at a 1:1 scale.

A large segment of the hydrogen chamber was rebuilt at its original size. This included the keel walkway, (i.e. the walkway which extends longitudinally along the airship’s base chamber), the axial walkway (which extends longitudinally along the zeppelin’s center chamber), as well as the connection and supply ladders between the walkways. At 59 ft. high and 49 ft. wide, this set was particularly impressive. The whole set was fully accessible and was used for multiple action scenes, including explosions and fires.

The keel walkway, which was 115 ft. long and up to 49 ft. high, extended into the airship’s cargo hold. The walkway’s adjoining rooms, such as the radio room, the crew members’ rooms, the crews’ sleeping rooms, and the officers’ mess were also reconstructed on MMC’s soundstage 53. The walkway and the rooms were also used for extensive fire effects.

The airship’s tail fin was the second set built on MMC’s big (21,500 sq. ft.) stage 53.

Hendrik Labuhn, MMC’s project coordinator for the film department, referred to the construction of the 98 ft. long tail of the Hindenburg as a major challenge: “As this part of the set had to be built for action scenes with extensive fire effects, the construction of the 49 ft. high, but relatively narrow, tail fin was particularly demanding with regard to load-bearing capacity and safety. This caused several sleepless nights to me, but eventually we managed to master this task, and we are proud of the final product.”

The highlight of the reconstructions on MMC’s soundstage 53 was without doubt the passenger deck, which included the stairway, corridors, and adjoining rooms. The whole passenger deck could be tilted as desired up to an incline of 45 degrees, so that the final moments of the Hindenburg could be simulated realistically.

Among the passenger room sets, the dining room set was the biggest. It was lengthened compared to its original size, to emphasize its elegance, size, and modernity. The designer of the passenger rooms at that time was a Bauhaus student; the company that manufactured the furniture of aluminum still produces Bauhaus furniture classics and supplied the airship’s furnishings for the movie.

The cabins of the original Hindenburg were unsuited to the movie. All were inside the ship, with no outside view, and were smaller than a train’s sleeping compartment.

The movie’s larger outside cabins were added to make the acting easier and the illumination more interesting. The Hindenburg’s successor, the LZ 130, had been completed by the time of the disaster, and had exactly this kind of cabins, although the LZ130 was never used commercially.

To save space, the dining room and the soiree room were combined. The smoking room, the only room on the airship where smoking was allowed, was located in the lower deck and was accessible through an airtight door. In the movie, the smoking room was attached to the dining room/soiree room. This arrangement is only a minor historical mistake, since in the Hindenburg’s successor airship, the LZ 130, the smoking room was constructed this way.

Like the passenger cabins, the Hindenburg’s officers’ mess was tiny and very unattractive from a filmic standpoint. Moreover, many smaller cargo holds were spread over the original airship. For the movie, a large cargo hold was invented to replace the many smaller ones. After modifications, this cargo hold also served as the set for the officers’ mess. A highlight among the cargo goods is an automobile, one that was actually aboard the Hindenburg at the time of the disaster. The car is not parked in the cargo hold, but is hanging on ropes from the lattice girders.

The airship’s technical rooms, which passengers never saw, were a particular challenge for cinematic presentation, since no object in the modern world resembles them. No modern objects can represent even the individual components, much less the very special architecture of the aluminum lattice girders. Eventually, nearly 1 mile of filigree perforated lattice girder had to be reconstructed.

MMC’s Henrik Labuhn, who with his art department team of up to 50 people realized the complete constructions of the Hindenburg, still looks back in amazement regarding the project’s scope and quality: “For us the project Hindenburg was a fantastic experience which involved a lot of work. Here, we were able to actually show what we are capable of. The final product speaks for itself and we are proud to have made our contribution to it.”

Hindenburg is a teamWorx production (a label of UFA Fiction), co-produced with RTL and EOS Entertainment. It is backed by the Film- und Medienstiftung NRW (Film and Media Foundation North Rhine-Westphalia) and the FilmFernsehFonds Bayern (Bavarian Film & TV Fund), and is supported by the Media Program of the European Union, the Austrian public broadcaster ORF, and Pixomondo Visual Effects.

Hindenburg premiered on RTL as a two-part mini-series in February 2010. In 2011, Hindenburg was awarded a German TV Award for ‘Best Mini-Series’.

Sources: RTL / MMC Studios

More information: www.betacinema.com

Photo: Jennifer van Zandt (Lauren Lee Smith). © RTL / Erik Lee Steingroever