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The Laconia: Sinking an ocean-liner onscreen

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Knut Loewe Knut Loewe | 11:32 UK time, Thursday, 6 January 2011

I was working as a production designer on a show in Lithuania when Nico Hoffman, the producer of The Sinking Of The Laconia, came to visit.

He told me about the idea for a new TV drama: the true story of the WWII English ocean-liner, RMS Laconia being bombed by a German submarine 600 miles off the West African coast.

Ken Duken as German U-boat commander, Werner Hartenstein

Once Werner Hartenstein, the commander of the German U-boat realised that the Laconia was carrying British civilians as well as Allied soldiers and Italian prisoners of war, he went against orders to organise the rescue of as many passengers as possible.

You can imagine that my imagination immediately went all over the place. Even though I was standing in the middle of 300 extras and some 100 horse-drawn carriages near the Baltic Sea, I said "Yes, yes, when do we start?"

When I first thought about design aspects on Laconia, nobody really had any idea how to do this.

I mean, in the beginning it seemed like Pearl Harbor meets Titanic with Das Boot as the icing on the cake.

The only difference was, we had much less money - a fraction of what those big American movies had.

Morven Christie as Laura Ferguson with Franka Potente as Hilda Smith, holding baby Ella

The entire project was a challenge. Just imagine, we needed to sink a 600-foot ocean-liner on screen and both the interior and exterior of a 200-foot submarine needed to be constructed from scratch as our primary filming location.

The exterior submarine used in the movie Das Boot no longer exists. The interior sits prettily in Munich as part of the Bavaria Film studio tour.

No way we would ever be able to shoot anything there, and besides, it was way too small.

The submarine required for this show was a type IX-C, which was the biggest German submarine at the time. I would say our biggest challenge was to be historically as accurate as possible.

The interior submarine set

The set I'm most proud of would be the Laconia exterior. Since it wasn't feasible to work with an existing ship, the producers asked me to come up with a proposal.

I took the script apart and allocated each scene to a specific area on board.

Then I proposed that we build at least five different sets for the Laconia exterior and make it look like one: The first class deck, the bridge, the aft deck, the straight hull in the harbour, a tilted hull for the sinking and a second class promenade for the sinking.

To build all these would cost less in the end than the towing of a real ship without mooring and insurance costs.

Only then did I get my budget approved for construction in South Africa. Please note that was four years after I started to think about possibilities! (Yes, I worked on other films in the meantime.)

The sinking hull section of the set

Over these four years I went through so many stages of the design as the script changed, as locations were found and debated and rejected.

I did feasibility studies - can you believe - for England, Germany, Malta, Spain, Australia and South Africa.

Truthfully, I have almost lost track of which design approach I liked best.

Once we'd decided to shoot everything in South Africa, I pretty much started from scratch. So what you see in the finished film are the designs I did in Cape Town at the beginning of 2009.

I had so many favourite moments making this film. The most exciting one of course, was the launch of the steel submarine we had constructed ourselves for the open-water scenes.

Other great moments are always when the actors appear on set for the first time in their period costumes (by costume designer Monika Jacobs).

It makes my heart beat faster to see Lindsay Duncan with her great outfits, along with the first class promenade we constructed with that horrible rust and patina.

Knut Loewe is the production designer on The Sinking Of The Laconia.

The Sinking Of The Laconia is on BBC Two at 9pm on Thursday, 6 January. It's repeated on BBC HD at 9pm on Thursday, 12 January.

For further programme times, please see the upcoming episodes page.

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