BBC iPlayer: The Sinking Of The Laconia

on Sunday, January 09, 2011
Words: Josh Blacker

SYNOPSIS: Presented in two 90-minute parts, this British-German co-production tells the remarkable true story of the sinking of the troopship RMS Laconia by German U-Boat U-156, and the rescue of Laconia survivors by the U-Boat that sank it.

Written by Alan Bleasdale, 'The Sinking Of The Laconia features some magnificent actors on both British and German sides, including Brian Cox, who plays a fantastically cynical Captain Sharp of the Laconia.

The story of the Laconia incident was a defining moment in the war at sea. Confusion over whether the Germans really had saved hundreds of civilians, Allied soldiers and Italian prisoners of war, or whether this was simply a ruse du guerre designed to attract Allied ships to sink, led to the Americans to reveal a secret Air Force base, and consequently to bomb the Red Cross-displaying U-156 in an attempt to prevent knowledge of this base reaching Axis commanders.

The ramifications were profound: Admiral Dönitz (Thomas Kretschmann) subsequently ordered U-Boats to cease even helping any survivors (by providing food, water and directions to the nearest shore, let alone rescuing them.

This production, however, focuses much more on the personal, individual stories and relationships aboard U-156 and the Laconia, and subsequently between the crew and passengers of both ships.

There are too many moments of sublime intensity to mention them all, but I would like to highlight the gallows humour of the Captain Sharp and his first mate as they wait on deck for the ship to sink, stoically bracing themselves as the deck tilts upwards; rather than give us Titanic-style water gushing over them, we cut to a long shot of the ship slipping below behind the lifeboats.

Going down with one’s ship is not a simple death, but writer, director and actors pull off the complexity of these few moments deftly. As the shot opens, it could just be a captain and his mate sharing a cigarette on any vessel, but even without telling us that this is it, we understand all too well what is going on.

That is, I think, the strength of 'The Sinking Of The Laconia'. Despite three hours in which lesser writers might give us long conversations between characters about their stories and what’s going on, everything we need to know is implicit, conveyed by masterful storytelling and great acting.

Despite that, there are some weaknesses. The treatment of Italian prisoners of war aboard the Laconia, caged beneath the water line, is barely touched upon, despite early hints that it could be explored to great effect. There is a tendency in scenes within German naval headquarters to use heavy vignetting, as if we couldn’t tell by the lack of water that we were far from the action.

'The Sinking Of The Laconia' sets a grand challenge for TV drama in 2011, to follow what I think is a magnificent start.

Watch the first part here and the concluding part here. Available until Friday 14 Jan 2011. UK users only.

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