The Sinking of Laconia is the kind of true story that would never see a green light if pitched as a work of fiction, adding weight to the idea that life doesn’t always follow a marketable arc.
The miniseries was penned by UK telewriter Alan Bleasdale, who was also behind acclaimed 1980s series Boys from the Blackstuff. Backed by years of fine-tooth research, Bleasdale was undeterred by warnings from historians and Allied survivors who claimed any work glorifying the German perspective of what’s known as "the Laconia Incident" could only lead to backlash.
They were only half-right, as any reviews that cried insensitivity were balanced by those who respected the man’s fact-backed chutzpah.
Told over the course of two feature-length episodes, this divisive miniseries is pulling into port on SBS On Demand on Monday 3 April.
Meet Werner Hartenstein
It’s September 1942, and 34-year-old Nazi U-boat commander Gustav Julius Werner Hartenstein begins his fourth patrol of wartime waters in the torpedo boat U-156, this time throughout the South Atlantic.
After spotting a large British ship en route to the UK, Hartenstein reported back to the Fatherland and received approval to bomb the thing to kingdom come. Up until this point, the Commander boasted such a flawless track record in successfully targeting enemy vessels that he had been awarded the German Cross earlier that fateful year.
This time, however, the ship he torpedoed off the coast of West Africa wasn’t a dangerous enemy vessel. Instead, it was the RMS Laconia, a requisitioned cruise liner.
The RMS Laconia
Turned out, the majority of the 3000 passengers weren’t soldiers, but innocent women, children and Italian POWs. Hartenstein had always justified his actions as coming from a place of goodness - or, if not, righteousness - so when he discovered the grim reality of the situation, his heart kicked into gear.
Going against the direct orders of the Nazi high command, Hartenstein announced he refused to let hundreds upon hundreds of innocent civilians meet their watery deaths. He began a dedicated rescue effort, risking his life and the life of his men in the process.
Unfortunately, the Americans, failing to notice the red-cross flags draped over the U-boat, attacked the scene, forcing Hartenstein to re-transfer the passengers into lifeboats. He still managed to save hundreds.
While the story of Hartenstein and the RMS Laconia is clearly ripe for complex drama, some would argue there's no need to glorify the man’s rescue efforts when he was responsible for taking so many lives in prior campaigns.
Other commentators, in a case of more blatant bias, see the final stages of the tragedy as anti-American, as if their well-documented and equally hasty decision to intervene could be omitted from the fact-based tale.
Painting a high-ranking Nazi official as part-hero might not have sat well with various critics, but an actual surviving British commander, Geoffrey Greet, told The Guardian, “No U-boat captain who would sit on the surface all that time and risk his own life is a bad man. I didn’t think much of him at first - after all, he had killed 2000 of my fellow passengers. But by the end, I admired him.”
If that’s not enough to pique your interest…
Not only does The Sinking of Laconia clear up one of the most controversial moments in WWII history, but it elevates the main characters above historical archetype, and imbues them with colour and contradiction.
Run Lola Run’s Franka Potente, as the face of the women aboard the RMS Laconia, is perhaps the most recognisable performer in the production. Meanwhile, screen and theatre legend Brian Cox (who played Hannibal Lecter before Anthony Hopkins in Michael Mann’s 1986 marvel, Manhunter) steals every scene he’s in as the Laconia’s captain, who hilariously takes up smoking once he knows the ship is sinking.
With great aplomb, German actor Ken Duken plays Commander Hartenstein, who you may recognise from the infamous Michael Fassbender-led scene in Tarantino’ss Inglorious Basterds.
Watch The Sinking of Laconia from SBS On Demand right here: