Film Review: The Sinking of the Laconia

Last week BBC 2 showed a two-part drama, telling the story of what happened when German U-Boat 156 torpedoed the RMS Laconia, before its captain realized that it wasn’t a troop ship.

The Sinking of the Laconia was shown in two parts, each lasting 90 minutes. I’m not sure what I was expecting to be honest, but I didn’t realize that they’d got German actors to play the parts of the Germans until I watched it; neither did I expect them to be speaking German. I expect that this might have put some people off, but I liked it.

Part 1 opens with a scene from U-156, showing the crew gathered round what is probably a dead body, singing “Der Gute Kamerad” – the traditional lament of the German Armed Forces, which is played annually in the Bundestag as part of Volkstrauertag (the German equivilant of Rememberance Sunday).

Much of the first part is based on the build up to the sinking itself – its not until about 50 minutes in that the Laconia is sunk. Switching between the U-Boat and the Laconia, we are introduced to the characters, who each have their own individual story. This works extremely well in the moments before the attack, where we see the British singing We’ll Meet Again, followed by a scene of the Germans listening in from their submarine, then back to the British singing, and back to the Germans, building up speed and getting ready to dive – until eventually, the command is given: “Los”.

There is nothing NAZI about the U-Boat captain, Kapitänleutnant Werner Hartenstein (played by Ken Duken). There is a scene which happens, before Hartenstein realizes that women and children are on the ship, where his collegues are joking about the captain going down along with the ship – to which Hartenstein’s reaction is something along the lines of “he is a man of the sea, like yourself”. In a story like this, they couldn’t have got away with showing Hartenstein as a stereotypical NAZI, whose main aim was to kill anyone and everyone in order to win the war.

After receiving no word from his “masters” (as he calls them) in German-occupied Paris, Hartenstein sends out a message in English, saying that he would not attack any ship coming to rescue survivors of the Laconia – therefore revealing his position. Admiral Dönitz realizes that this leaves him vulnerable to attack, and the first part ends with a message being received on board U-156, telling Hartenstein to maintain ability to dive. Hartenstein then orders his chief engineer to perform a full emergency dive.

In part two, we see this full emergency dive taking place. Hartenstein tells the crew to go down to 45 meters maximum. And we see the crew counting – Zehn Meters… Zwansig Meters, etc. And with the weight of over 250 on board, the U-Boat goes well below a 45 meter depth. Its not until Hundert-fünfundsiepzig (175) meters that the boat is able to start journeying back up to the surface.

Other key scenes are the Germans teaching 7-year old Anthony how to say “Vergiß nicht, daß du eine Deutsche bist”… which is then one of the first things he says when his father eventually boards the boat, and the conversation between Hilda Smith/Schmidt (played by Franka Potente) as Hartenstein realizes that she’s German who fled the 3. Reich, but chooses not to act on this information. And when another U-Boat turns up to take the Italian POWs away, Hartenstein’s collegue tells him that with all the allies on board, it might count if he was to sink Hartenstein’s boat.

Meanwhile the British had received the message stating Hartenstein’s position, and, not sure whether it was a trap or not, told the Americans to search and find survivors from the Laconia… but chose not to tell them that they’d be on a German U-Boat. We see the air crew being told to “search and find”, but they’re not told what they’re looking for. There’s then a later scene, in which one of the pilot says that they are “searching and finding” German U-Boats.

When the Americans actually see the submarine, they don’t seem to see the red cross hanging on the side of it. Either that, or as Dad pointed out to me last week, they probably thought it was a swastika. So they bomb the submarine. On board the submarine, Junior Third Officer Thomas Mortimer(played by Andrew Buchan) is seen shouting “Shoot them”, while Hartenstein is seen shouting “do not shoot”. Ironically, these events means that the British and the Americans are the bad guys in this film – not the Germans!

The final part of the film is based on what happens after the American bombing, and Hartenstein orders the survivors back on to the life-boats, which are tied to the side of his U-Boat, before telling them that a French ship is on the way, and if they hold their position, they will be picked up. Some choose to stay, some decide that they’d rather attempt to find land – nearly 700 naughtical miles from the coast of West Africa.

Eventually, they do get picked up… and Hartenstein and his crew return to their base, where Hartenstein is awarded with the Ritterkreuz. The film ends with the information appearing on screen that U-156 was sunk in the Atlantic Ocean in March 1943, with no survivors.

Notes

  • The two parts of the Sinking of the Laconia are still available on the BBC iPlayer.
  • You can also pre-order a copy of the DVD on Amazon, costing £10.99. It will be released February 28th.
  • I’m not sure what the age rating is at the moment; but this information will probably be on the Amazon page soon.
  • Audio is in English and German. Subtitles are in English, for the German bits.
  • Both parts last 90 minutes. The DVD will therefore last 3 hours.

Fred Hart

Stock Controller and Radio Presenter/Producer

4 Comments

  1. A superb piece of drama.
    Bleasdale’s brilliance was to balance both sides in the conflict, and the mutual humanity of seafarers.

    Best TV for years. Well done to all involved in this 5-star production.

    Martin Heazell

  2. Stunning and memorable. If only more programmes on TV currently were of such a high standard.

  3. Overall, a very enjoyable and well constructed drama. This is certainly the best we have seen from the BBC in recent years.

    That being said, a few notable inaccuracies were present. With the briefest of research, these could have been avoided.

    Firstly, British soldiers and officers would never salute under any circumstances without headdress. This happens a number of times in the drama.

    Secondly, a lady refers to herself as a ‘British Citizen’. This is entirely inaccurate as the concept did not exist until years later. She would have been, along with everyone else in this period a ‘British Subject’ and even the most cursory of research would have shown this to be the case.

    Apart from this, very well done. Let us have more!

  4. one of the best enjoyable submarine films. the events are true and the distrust of British and Americans is portrayed well, the Germans! are not the bad guys in this film. Hartenstein was from the old German navy,nearly as good as ‘DAS BOOT’,

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