It’s true. Apparently, the farther they are from the heart of Berlin, the slight chance there is of a tiny moral light breaking through those blackened, cold hearts. Well, that of one man anyway.
In 1942, Werner Hartenstein, in command of U-156, spotted smoke on the horizon, emanating the single smokestack of the Laconia, which he and his crew believed to be an exclusive troop transport to be fired upon. Early evening came, they confirmed it was the Laconia, and they fired their weapons, sinking the ship quickly, with 2,500 people on board rapidly dwindling to a few lifeboats, as well as passengers in the water.
The ship was carrying mostly Italian prisoners of war, kept in the lower hold in filthy conditions, but also passengers, dramatized here by Franka Pontete as Hilda, traveling with a baby named Ella; Lindsay Duncan as Elisabeth Fullwood, a society matron; Jodi Balfour as Sarah Fullwood, her daughter, who we learn got more attention from her nannies than her mother; Ludovico Fremont as Vincenzo Di Giovanni, one of the 1,800 Italian prisoners of war; Brian Cox as Captain Sharp, who doesn’t like the ship’s new purpose; and Andrew Buchan as Junior Third Officer Thomas Mortimer, who leaves behind a wife and two children for this voyage, and is very helpful to Hilda, getting her on board after she’s refused, but not knowing her full story.
The voyage matters little until the tragic end, so we learn little by little about Hilda, about Elisabeth and Sarah, about the friendliness between Hilda and Mortimer, about the conditions in the lower hold where the POWs are. Unlike the Titanic we know, the separate classes absolutely do not mingle. There’s no such romance to be found here, no breaking barriers. The ship’s just sailing from Egypt back to Liverpool, and that’s all there is. The only difference is that it’s during the war, so the waters are potentially more dangerous, as Captain Sharp, Officer Mortimer, and everyone else on board the Laconia quickly finds out.
War clouds everything, including perceptions. We know of the Nazis through those disturbing marches and parades, leading to horrific atrocities that are still haunting today. So it is a shock when, after the Laconia sinks, after Hartenstein realizes the terrific mistake he and his crew have made, he doesn’t gun down the survivors or subjects them to torture or anything else you’d expect a Nazi to do. He has them come on board, and even though some of his crew is uneasy about this prospect, he makes sure they’re taken care of, their injuries looked after, tea and food served, and eventually, a sheet painted with a red cross to indicate U-156 as a ship of mercy, a safe haven.
The real tension, ably expressed by writer Alan Bleasdale, director Uwe Janson, and all these actors, including others not named, is what happens next. What will the Nazis do? Send as many U-boats available to make this very hard on Hartenstein (Ken Duken), the crew, and the Laconia survivors? In Sierra Leone, Africa, since the U-boat is 600 miles from the coast, the British power there says to his second-in-command that because this is a time of war, there is only one thing for them to do: Nothing. Let the Americans worry about it.
In an unimaginable situation like this, the German and the British on board the U-boat begin to get along, without much notice of their separate stances in this war or that this crew is part of the Nazi Party. It’s not about labels; it’s about being human, being compassionate. Hartenstein is a rare, nearly unblemished name in the history of World War II. At first, it’s impossible to believe that this actually happened. Then it’s easy to see that it did, and to wonder what will become of all these men and women on board this one U-boat, and the international forces at work to try to make sense of this. The mistake made by Julian Fellowes in his Titanic miniseries is the one that Alan Bleasdale has avoided: Until the sinking of the Titanic happened, inasmuch that the ship was celebrated and deemed unsinkable, it was just a voyage for many, to get from one side of the Atlantic to the other. That’s all. Bleasdale understands how momentous this situation was in the history of the war, but plays it straight, lets the drama come from what happened. There is nothing overdramatic, overdone, nothing that makes one wonder if Bleasdale is putting more into this than it’s worth. The story itself is wholly remarkable. Just tell it. That’s exactly what Bleasdale does, what Fellowes could have done successfully if he just played that fateful voyage straight.
Acorn Media’s two-disc DVD release includes the 29-minute featurette “The Sinking of the Laconia: Survivors’ Stories,” which presents insights into the disaster and subsequent surprising rescue from six survivors. Yes, this actually happened. What’s even more amazing than the dramatization are these survivors themselves, the diary kept that tells the time of the sinking, the sharks in the water, what these six went through and how grateful they are that one man decided not to follow the dictates of war and do the right thing. It gives more power to this two-part drama.
I’m not confidently knowledgeable about everything that happened during World War II, so The Sinking of the Laconia is a surprise, and makes me want to dig deeper, to see if there’s any more stories like this, besides the brave figures during the Holocaust. It seems impossible to find the good during a terrible war, but here’s a prime example, which raises faith in humanity. That’s most welcome.