The Sinking of The Laconia - Final episode reviewed
Review by Jack Foley
THE second part of Alan Bleasdale’s The Sinking of The Laconia, based on one of the most humane acts in the Second World War, was when the drama really came into its own.
Having flirted with Titanic-style pretensions of melodrama in its first part, the final 90 minutes really enabled Bleasdale’s strength with words and characterisation to shine – and never more so than in his depiction of the man at the centre of the drama, German U-boat commander Werner Hartenstein.
In reality, Hartenstein was the commander who gave the order to first torpedo and sink the RMS Laconia, a former Cunard liner that was press-ganged into war service, in 1942 some 600 miles off the coast of Africa.
But when he realised that, far from merely being a troop transporter, the vessel was carrying civilians, Italian POWs, Polish prison guards and British soldiers from Egypt to Britain, he incredibly decided to rescue many of the survivors.
In desperation, he issued an SOS to both his German bosses and his English enemy, vowing not to attack any Allied vessel that came to his aid. He also painted a Red Cross flag on his vessel, such was his determination to see his new mission through without further loss of life.
Part two of the BBC drama examined the emotional cost of this decision and was expertly portrayed by the actor playing Hartenstein: Ken Duken.
Throughout the episode, Duken found himself challenged to make difficult decisions while those around him either remained sceptical or confused.
Duken invested this fascinating historical figure with a warmth and humanity that felt genuine given his situation – an everyman, almost, whose passion for the rules of the ocean, rather than the rules of war, provided his strongest moral compass.
His interaction with fellow crew members and survivors was brilliantly portrayed showing hidden depths to the man – whether it be his early tussle with his father over career choice, or his slow-building anger at the gruelling necessity that accompaies war (particularly with the knowledge you may be on the wrong side).
He was ably supported, too, by Andrew Buchan’s Mortimer, the Laconia’s Third Officer, who was taken by Hartenstein as a prisoner of war, but who was treated with so much respect that when the time came to repeat the favour and save Hartenstein’s life, he didn’t bat an eyelid.
The tentative friendship that developed between the two was fascinating to watch and actually quite moving come their goodbye.
Much better, too, in this episode were Lindsay Duncan and Franka Potente’s portrayals of two women survivors (one an English toff, the other a German stowaway), who were able to provide more depth and layering to characters who had seemed almost superfluous to the building drama of the opening episode.
Uwe Janson’s direction, meanwhile, was suitably tense, especially during the moments leading up to the arrival of an American bomber, whose decision to try and bomb the U-boat triggered the end of the rescue operation.
Indeed, this act marked another incredible twist in this amazing story, with the Allied commanders on both the English and American side refusing to take responsibility and risk being led into a trap by Hartenstein.
An English commander was seen to bury the SOS message and pass the task of searching for the Laconia over to the Americans, who subsequently responded by sending out an inexperienced flight crew who simply wanted to bomb something.
Once set back adrift by Hartenstein, the survivors were picked up by a French vessel sent out by his German superiors, while Hartenstein returned to his commanders to a hero’s welcome – albeit one marred by new orders never to repeat such humane acts again.
Hartenstein and his crew would be killed at sea by a bomber the following year, but the people he rescued never forgot the bravery and humanity of the man who came to their unlikely rescue.
Thanks to Bleasdale’s remarkably compelling drama, and Duken’s brilliant portrayal, neither will we too.
A special programme following the real-life recollections of Laconia survivors is due to air on BBC2 on Saturday night at 7.30pm.