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 1.

    Looking forward to this it looks fantastic, but it's a shame it's not being aired on HD at the same time. The BBC need to put more into their HD channels as this is the future...

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    My grand father and uncle were both killed when the Laconia was torpedoed so the film is an impetnat part of our family history.
    Sadly the sacrfices of the merchant seaman killed were never recognised with a medal unlike those serving in the armed forces even though their bravery and contribution matched those of their military counterparts.

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    Comment number 3.

    It would have been nice BBC to give some credit to the excellent book the play was based on

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    Comment number 4.

    My Father survived the sinking of the Laconia. He never told me much about the sinking, but did express his respect for Werner Von Hartenstein. It is thanks to the humanity of Hartenstein I am able to post this comment today. I hope the BBC show the Drama on BBC America.

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    Comment number 5.

    Looking forward to watching this. True stories are so much more interesting.
    Wish it was in HD.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    My grandads' brother was killed when the Laconia was torpedoed. His brother was also supposed to be on board but due to sickness a few days earlier, he was not on board at the time. It is such a shame that even with the many links to Liverpool, there is no memorial in the city. The ship is however commemorated in the Tower Hill memorial in London. I am so pleased to finally have the Laconias' amazing story shown on screen.

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    Comment number 7.

    Gripping drama. The characterisation is so convincing and Franke Potente's performance particularly moving. It is so refreshing to have characters speak their native language and actors drawn from across Europe. The old stereotypical representations of Germans are I hope going to gradually fade as more sensitive portrayals of people from all nations become the norm. A fascinating story of humanity.I hope there will be more productions made of this kind, penned by good writers of drama. Thankyou Alan Bleasedale!

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    Comment number 8.

    A tragic story indeed but remarkably well adapted by the BBC and a genuine masterpiece of free to air viewing. Setting aside for a moment the truly harrowing nature of this highly regrettable event, drama like this on the BBC is the reason why I shell out for a TV License. This is the second quality war drama aired by the BBC in the last 12 months, you may remember the first .i.e. "First Light" the Story of the Spitfire Ace Sir Geoffrey Wellum..... Keep it up BBC, very well done indeed!! We're looking forward to Part 2!

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    This production was completely ruined for me by the ridiculous mistakes made in the uniforms. The Captain wore four rings on his epaulettes, and a merchant service cap, fair enough. His second in command wore Royal Navy two and a half rings and a merchant service cap, and poor old Andrew Buchan wore something that would disgrace a fancy dress. He had sergeants best dress chevrons on his epaulettes, Royal Navy Petty Officer No 2 uniform crossed anchors on his left arm, and Royal Navy Chief Petty Officers buttons on his cuffs!

    The crew were even worse. The useless gunners wore the insignia of Royal Naval Leading Seaman Gunners, who would be more than competent to operate a 4” gun and twin .50 calibres, besides which they would be merchant Navy men, and of course they had their gunnery badges upside down as did the Royal Navy Stokers, who would also be Merchant seamen. The signal operators would be wearing blue No 2 uniform, No 8 uniform didn’t come in till well after the war.

    When it is so easy to get these things right why did the costume department make such a pig’s ear of it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    My father was on the Laconia when it sank. Some inaccurate elements, but well produced story. I'm sorry to tell Martin, none of the service personnel received any medals or commendations for this action. These survivors ended up as POWs in Algeria under the Vichy French after being picked up by the ship Gloire. As Britinoregon, he has nothing but praise for Captain Hartenstein, and he is still alive today at 97.

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    Comment number 11.

    This has been an emotional show for me. My late father was on the Clan MacWhirter which Hartenstein and U-156 sank on 27 August 1942, immediately prior to the sinking of the Laconia. Hartenstein showed his compassion in this case as well as he surfaced and informed those in the lifeboats, my father included, of their co-ordinates and the direction of Madeira. They were in open lifeboats for ten days or more until a Portuguese destroyer picked them up. My father rarely spoke of it but, like britinoregan's father, he had great respect for Hartenstein's humanity. I share that respect; had it not been for Hartenstein's sense of decency I probably wouldn't be here either.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I quite enjoyed the drama side of the programme, and it was broadly historically accurate. However, what I found glaringly wrong was that there was no understanding shown of the difference between Royal Navy & Merchant Navy. As a previous post has noted, the only accurate uniform shown was the Master's. A final point being that MN crew don't wear uniform anyway unless they're a steward, or a Passenger Ship's Quartermaster.
    This lack of attention to detail showed, to me, that there was no real interest being shown in the real story. "Naval uniform? That'll do for this, afterall nobody will know the difference". It is evidence of lazy production.
    The other issue is that the relationship between the MN personnel was completely misunderstood. The Senior Radio Officer on the Laconia would have been in Officer's uniform, with 2 or 3 stripes, and would have been on terms of near equality with the "Junior Third Officer". He wouldn't have been a rating, as in the RN, and he certainly wouldn't have called the Junior Third Officer "sir". He might have had 2 assistant radio officers, with 1 or 2 stripes on their officer's uniforms, not a room full of Signals Ratings in RN working dress.
    Why no Engineers? Apart from a couple of Firemen, the Engine Room appeared to be empty.
    This lack of knowledge and understanding shows that even a writer from Liverpool, with it's rich maritime heritage, has no idea of the reality of the Merchant Navy, which is a pity, as this was such a good opportunity to redress the imbalance.

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    Comment number 13.

    Very strange that wet, low quality coal should be blamed for excess smoke on an oil-fired ship!

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    Comment number 14.

    Great, especially the last half hour of the first part. But camera work was too restless.
    Great underwater model of the U-boat. Many Dutch people have seen the program.

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    Comment number 15.

    My Grandad was a survivor on the Laconia a Merchant Sailor, sadly he is no longer with us but his story and bravery lives on in our family. This film may have had its faults but has provoked old memories and emotions and above all respect for all Merchant Seamen, these men where at sea long before war and long after.

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    Comment number 16.

    Yes a great story and some good photography. But I must agree with previous comments regarding the uniforms, lots of mistakes, especially RN badges sewn on upside down. I am now watching the second part and I note now that the Royal Navy Wireless signalman at Sierra Leone RN HQ is also wearing his "sparkers" badge upside down.
    A lot of detail was put into this sad story only to be marred by silly mistakes.
    Saying all that...well done Alan Bleasedale.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I do hope that this brilliant adaptation of The Sinking of the Laconia will be repeated for those who missed it on BBC 2. In spite of some inaccurate details I felt that given the financial restraints and in the face of much criticism in going ahead to set records straight this fact-based drama, enhanced by fine acting, deserves to be screened at major cinemas in all countries! Well done Alan Bleasedale!

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    A great programme. The ship and submarine were done very well. Just a pity that some of the uniforms were wrong. You had some of the officers on the Laconia wearing Royal Navy insignia and one very odd uniform jacket the 3rd Officer was wearing with merchant navy officers shoulder epaulettes and a Royal Navy Petty Officers badge on the left sleeve. It looked like something from a fancy dress as did the American Officers hats at the Ascension Island base. Also, one great big gaff... The branch badges worn on the right arms of some of the Laconia crew were actually Royal Naval badges and would not have been worn by merchant seamen but worse than that they were all upside down!!!! I don't suppose that the general public would realise or care, but as I am ex Royal Navy, I did realise and it annoyed me. Who on earth advised you about the uniforms..... I wouldn't use them again

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    As a former member of the Royal Navy I found the misguided use of branch insignia and uniforms a disgrace. I do believe it would have been regarded as bringing the Queens uniform into disrepute by such a display. A punishable offence under the Naval Discipline Act.

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    Comment number 20.

    Excellent series about a little know historical event. I’m surprised at the comments made about uniform inaccuracies. My step father fought in the Battle of the Atlantic and I remembering him mentioning that while at sea, crews wore anything they could get their hands on. Even stripping bodies to get more suitable clothing. Correct dress was for the parade ground.


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