The Laconia: Sinking an ocean-liner onscreen

Thursday 6 January 2011, 11:32

Knut Loewe Knut Loewe Production Designer

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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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  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    I just wanted to say thankyou to all of the team involved. This is the most powerful piece of television drama I have ever seen.
    Beautifully made, and a story which really moved and inspired me

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    Also in fairness, this seems to be the only place that the BBC accepted comments on the programme. I did look! If this is the only place where comments can be made, then comments are going to made about areas of production beyond Mr.Loewe's area of expertise.
    However, if he is responsible for set design, then he is also responsible for getting set design wrong. Examples mentioned above include the incongruous bulbous bow, the ridiculous wheelhouse clutter, crew in the wrong area, and the rubbish lying around. Even if a photo showed rubbish, or unidentified things on deck, in port on a ship engaged in working cargo, that material would be removed, and the ship tidied up once it got to sea. Cargo and Cargo/passenger ships ALWAYS look scruffy in port. That doesn't mean that they stay scruffy once they're settled into a voyage. These things were Mr Loewe's responsibility to get right, and he didn't do so.

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    Comment number 63.

    Hello again everyone,
    Hilary Norrish, the producer of The Sinking Of The Laconia wanted to respond to all your feedback here. Hilary's asked me to post this on her behalf:

    Thanks to Chris (3) for drawing attention to Frederick Grossmith’s wonderful book ‘The Sinking of the Laconia’. I have Alan Bleasdale’s copy of it in front of me right now and there are hundreds of yellow sticky markers liberally lettered through the text. It was credited on both parts of our drama but I think you may have missed it on the end roller! Grossmith’s book was one of many that Alan used in researching the story but for anyone who is interested in diving into the background I cannot recommend it highly enough: it’s a detailed, gripping account of the Laconia incident.

    Martin, Britinoregon, Emma, Andy C, Peter, Vicky and Sally at comments 2, 4, 6, 10, 11, 15 and 31 - It’s been wonderful to hear from – and talk to - survivors of the Laconia and their relatives. I’ve been incredibly moved by their understated accounts of enormous courage and endurance. And by the impact that the Laconia incident had on the rest of their lives. All recounted with humility and great good humour. Sally’s husband Captain Ben Coutts was very close to Alan’s heart. Sir Max Hastings wrote a very touching obituary when he died in 2004 that Alan pinned on the wall above his typewriter throughout the five years that he worked on the show – next to a picture of Werner Hartenstein - a constant reminder of people whose lives were profoundly affected by the events of the 12th of September, 1942.

    Now – of course – I have to respond to the criticism over the accuracy of the costumes which has clearly been at best distracting and at worst infuriating to many contributors to this blog. And for this I first must just apologise wholeheartedly. It was our intention to serve this story, one that had become so close to our hearts, with as much accuracy and authenticity as possible. To this end, we consulted a number of experts and used lots of reference books and photographs. There was even, remarkably, a small amount of cine footage shot on German submarine U 156 at the time! We also had a retired Admiral on set while we were shooting. And – of course and crucially – we used eye witness reports and spoke to survivors.

    Certainly, there were details that we knew were not quite right for the period. Keir and I_Claudius have rightly noticed the bulbous bow in the dry dock which is a little anachronistic. We shot this scene in Simonstown - the naval base in South Africa - and that was the ship that was there! In truth, I think we felt that the image of our U Boat Commanders walking through such an arresting location was worth it. But these are always debatable judgement calls.

    And then there were the lifejackets. I asked Josephine Pratchett (one of the survivors featured in the documentary) if she had any comments on the accuracy of our portrayal and the only thing she picked up on were the lifejackets. And she was quite right. But we had a practical problem: we were shooting on the open water in Capetown – the Cape of Good Hope - with hundreds of actors and crew crammed onto the deck of our home made U-156. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 1942 lifejackets just didn’t pass any criteria of Health and Safety in 2009! So we had to compromise. I discovered that the Cape of Good Hope was previously known as the Cape of Storms and during the shoot we all found out why! We decided to keep our company safe – if a little inaccurate.

    But from the very detailed comments from Bobhinton, Chouan93, Jimbo and others it becomes clear that our best efforts at accuracy didn’t cut the mustard. And that there were things that we were unaware of at the time. All I can say is that we were very mindful of the imperative – actually our duty - to get the detail right. We were very aware of the distinction between the Merchant Navy (who made up most of the Laconia’s crew) and the Royal Navy. And we tried to underline these distinctions on screen. Where we failed for some of you I feel I should simply apologise that it distracted from your enjoyment of the drama.

    Finally, I’d just like to thank all of you for your feedback about The Sinking of the Laconia. It has been a labour of love – lasting almost as long as the Second World War itself! But above all, it has been a privilege to work on such a remarkable story of courage and humanity in the fog of war.

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    Comment number 64.

    A pretty comprehensive response. On the other hand, to what extents were these "experts" expert, if so many errors were allowed to be shown and why have a retired Admiral on hand whilst shooting? What could he advise you about the running of a merchant ship?

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    I agree with many of the earlier criticisms about the accuracy of this production but also acknowledge that dramatic licence is necessary and sometimes desirable to present a story within time and budget constraints. So while I have reservations about some aspects of the story-telling, in particular the inter-personal relationships and social attitudes, criticising them on the grounds of accuracy is fruitless because of the counter-argument that these are merely subjective opinions.

    But the producer's response (#63) to the criticisms about uniforms is blood-boilingly patronising. It is simply not good enough to say that these were "things we were unaware of at the time" and then hope to move on: since this is a BBC joint production, it seems reasonable to assume that licence-payers' money was involved in making it, and some of that has clearly not been well spent. Hilary Norrish herself makes the point that the producers had a duty to get the detail right, and says that they consulted experts, including a retired Admiral, in order to do so. On the basis of what was broadcast, it appears as if at least some of these were decidely inexpert so far as the British uniforms are concerned. This raises serious questions of professional competence and of the BBC's quality assurance processes. I think we should be told who these experts were, what advice they gave, and how much they were paid.


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