SPECIAL FEATURE: DVD Review: The Sinking Of The Laconia

Film: The Sinking Of The Laconia
Release date: 14th March 2011
Certificate: 15
Running time: 171 mins
Director: Uwe Janson
Starring: Andrew Buchan, Franka Potente, Ken Duken, Brian Cox, Lindsay Duncan
Genre: Drama/History/War
Studio: Fremantle
Format: DVD
Country: Germany/UK

This is an English-language release.

If you were asked to reel off a list of infamous World War II moments, the chances are the sinking of the Laconia would not be on it. Yet few war stories are as compelling as the one renowned writer Alan Bleasdale has brought back to life in the shape of this two-part TV drama.

He takes us back to the autumn of 1942 when the RMS Laconia left Africa for her home port of Liverpool, carrying a motley crew of passengers. They ranged from privileged English ladies in the plushest quarters to 1,800 Italian prisoners of war, held captive below the water line and watched over by particularly nasty Polish guards.

Disaster befell the Laconia and her human cargo not long into the voyage. A German U-boat spotted, tracked and torpedoed the converted cruise ship, killing hundreds. The survivors, huddled in lifeboats, seemed certain to perish, too, cut adrift miles from land with little or no provisions. But, spotting that the Laconia’s refugees included women and children, the U-boat’s captain Werner Hartenstein led a stunning rescue mission.

As hundreds of survivors sheltered on his submarine and more packed into lifeboats tethered to its hull, Hartenstein informed the Allies of his actions and promised not to attack any rescue ship. Suspicious, the British ignored the broadcast and instead passed on sketchy information about the Laconia’s plight to the US Air Force. The Americans sent a bomber to search for survivors but, spotting Hartenstein’s U-boat, they opened fire…

There’s a rather obvious reason why the Laconia incident didn’t embed itself in the public’s consciousness halfway through the Second World War. Britain was hardly going to extol the virtues of a compassionate Nazi captain. And the Germans weren’t keen on promoting a man whose behaviour didn’t fit with the image of a ruthless killing machine that Hitler so adored. Instead, it’s left to Bleasdale to honour the event and its key protagonists in this British-German co-production. And his glowing reputation – he already has Boys From The Blackstuff and G.B.H. on his CV - will certainly bring it the attention it deserves.

For the story of the Laconia is not simply a gripping tale of tragic events, it also raises important questions about humanity and how compassion can prevail in the most testing of circumstances. It reminds us to look beyond the propaganda and understand that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ exists on both sides. Hartenstein, after all, is the noblest of Nazis, responsible for the naval equivalent of the Christmas truce on the Western Front.

The Sinking Of The Laconia explores other themes, too: the paranoia of war where schisms on board and in boardrooms undermine the chances of good being done. As Captain Hathaway (Danny Keogh) remarks, the Allies want “none of that love and friendship nonsense.” It also works as a critique of indiscriminate force - a charge levelled in modern-day conflict zones such as Palestine and the Middle East.

Class issues are explored, too. “No riff raff, Sarah,” warns Lady Elisabeth Fullwood (the splendid Lindsay Duncan) to her daughter (Jodi Balfour), as she eyes up a waiter on board the Laconia. Everyone knows their place on that vessel, from the pampered upper classes to the prisoners down below. And yet Bleasdale shows how the shared experience of war can cut through the class divide - after all, only survival matters when the torpedoes hit.

The mind-blowing horror, savage loss and irreversible cost that war brings is never allowed to drift far from the audience’s mind, whether it manifests itself in a moonlit ambush or the crackle of a Duke Ellington record. And, while telling this incredible story, Bleasdale addresses these issues with a slew of brilliantly-drawn characters, brought to life by some fine performances from the cast. None better than Andrew Buchan, whose Junior Third Officer Thomas Mortimer carries arguably the greatest weight of all. We catch a fleeting glimpse of him in England before the war, immersed in the happiness of family life. He tries to recreate that idyllic existence on the Laconia but events overtake him and Buchan’s haunted yet stoic, stiff-upper-lip Britishness is pretty much faultless.

Mortimer is tied in knots by his relationship with Hilda (the excellent Franka Potente) – disgusted by her shocking secret yet desperate for companionship – and this is where Bleasdale’s writing and is at its best as these lonely, anguished characters tip-toe around each other.

Mind you, everywhere you look there are fine performances. The sense of foreboding as the Laconia and the U-156 converge is epitomised by world-weary Captain Sharp (Brian Cox), who has arguably the best lines of all. “What kind of world is it when bullets and blood are the only currency? Not the kind of world I want to live in,” he tells Mortimer during one especially dark moment.

Lenny Wood, as the boxer Billy Hardacre, and Italian prisoner Di Giovanni (Ludovico Fremont), provide a humorous counter-point to Cox’s cynical Captain. Meanwhile, over on the U-boat, Bleasdale pits warmonger against humanitarian in the shape of chief engineer Rostau (Matthias Koeberlin) and Hartenstein (Ken Duken). Their relationship is arguably the most watchable of all: Koeberlin is outstanding as Rostau, a consummate soldier who smells blood whether he is bullying the U-boat new boy or tracking down the enemy. He visibly licks his lips when Hartenstein’s rescue mission is aborted and the German crew returns to a state of war: “That is our first duty,” he says with a glint in his eye.

And then there is Hartenstein, the poster boy for Nazi Germany and yet a character whose manages to lift himself above the fray to deliver one of the Second World War’s most surprising and selfless acts. “This lull is only temporary,” he reminds a British officer, but even temporary lulls rarely exist amid such bitter conflict. Duken is thoughtful, measured and authoritative as Hartenstein and it’s intriguing to watch the scenes in which his bloodthirsty crew responds – with varying degrees of reluctance - to his benevolence just hours after celebrating three direct hits on the enemy. “If you were English you’d be a gentleman,” Lady Fullwood tells Hartenstein. “Germany has gentlemen too, madam,” he replies. It’s a truism that was never passed on between 1939 and 1945.

The Sinking Of The Laconia has its flaws. It is beautifully shot for the most part - there is one stand-out scene in which the camera sweeps along the length of the packed U-boat following the rescue – but the sequence during which the Laconia is attacked is less convincing. What’s more, the suspicion the survivors felt for their rescuers (as emphasised in the DVD extra, ‘Survivors’ Stories’) doesn’t really come across in Bleasdale’s version. But those are minor quibbles

The final word should go to Italian POW, Di Giovanni. “I don’t know why I should have been chosen to survive. But I did. And so many did not. But I will tell their stories to anyone who will hear it.” Bleasdale has done exactly that. He makes us think, tugs at our heartstrings and reminds us just how good – and bad – mankind can be. CH

No comments:

Post a Comment