John Rabe

Directed by Florian Gallenberger

There is a brief scene near the end of this masterfully touching film that shows the protagonist, John Rabe, quietly gathering his financial assets before being forced to leave his hearth and home. From his apartment safe in Nanjing, he removes a neat double stack of bills. The money represents this German man’s and his wife’s life’s savings. The money they have amassed in 27 years of living in China in the early decades of the 20th century. The bills are all in American currency, $5s and $10s. These are the funds he would use to start his life elsewhere.
An isolated theoretical: Will tomorrow’s films show a man’s savings in American green?

When we lived in China, no one in the country was ever very far from the memory of the Nanjing Massacre of 1937. Japanese tourists were received with frozen, fixed stares. But the atrocity still seems remote from the consciousness or fingertip-retrieval of most sensitive world-history aficionados, save for the longest-memoried Asian-Americans, or those Westerners specializing in the history of East Asian affairs.

At long last, this dreadful time in world history seems to be making its way to the big screen. Florian Gallenberger's John Rabe is the newest of a group of Occidental-made, Nanjing-themed lensers that include the stellar-documentary Nanking and narrative full-length feature film, The Children of Huang Shi. Last year's huge winner at the German Film Awards, this powerful historical epic lasers in on one of the more memorable heroes to have emerged in the surviving accounts of the massacre, the eponymous Nazi hero, John Rabe (Ulrich Tukur) with a vein of obdurate decency to him, despite his unquestioning—if distant—support of the faraway fuhrer.

Diligent as managing director in Nanjing of China's imposing Siemens branch, Rabe and his devoted, empathic wife are resistant to leave their adopted home of some 27 years when ordered back to Germany, especially when the Japanese invasion places his Chinese workers, friends and colleagues in lethal proximity to airborne Japanese death. Along with the head of a local girls' ‘college’ (beautifully played by the austere and soulful Anne Cosigny) and a conscience-minded American physician (a too-contemporary Steve Buscemi, who seems passionate, but somehow misplaced in time, somehow to be visiting this film), he sets up the prime safety zone in the Nanjing. A Chinese safety ghetto from the nightly air raids from above.

Designed to house some 100,000 Chinese, non-soldiers, in actuality it accreted more than twice that figure. The zone is an algorithm that confronts the committed Rabe with both impossible choices and endless wrangles with home country red tape, re-supply snafus and black-marketing, officious blinkered officials and bestial Japanese war overlords with whom he is shackled in order for his zone of succor to be consummated and sustained.

Though the film is as strong and bloody as any in the genre, evoking the wrenching Holocaust imagery of Schindler’s List, the film is carefully discrete about the unbelievable tonnage of rape and daily decapitation by heinous, nerveless foot-soldiers and their cruel generals by the hundreds of thousands by the automaton-frigid Japanese.

Though removed in time by more than 70 years, this German-Chinese-French co-production squeezes the heart, engrosses viewers in taut suspense and wrenching pain, using actual footage and clips from the era—most nearly destroyed in toto by the receding Japanese mindful of their horrendous legacy-to-be, if any documentation of their brutality survived. Though the cynical in Europe downplay this as well as the filmographies of German horror on European soil, there is moral urgency and witness in every frame of this wartime prestige cine. Stephen Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun was a war-whisper forerunner of this film, and it stands the test of time—but Rabe goes farther than the American-vantage-point earlier film.

Smartly filmed and well acted, John Rabe gives the era its due, a re-crystallization of chilling chaos. Nor does the story make each character a fixed point. Even the protagonist, Rabe himself, almost abandons his moral stance when rescue seems at hand. One cannot predict where the Buscemi character will attach, or whether Rabe’s beloved wife will stand by him or not, if the beautiful young photographer will be caught and raped as she scuttles through unsafe alleys to find her brother, or whether hidden contingents of soldiers will breach security.

As a post-film exposition crawl explains, the massacre is still vastly contentious, still ignored or denied by official Japanese. It still serves as cause for modern-day Chinese nationalism. The script never comes to grips, quite, with how such a savior of myriads of ordinary Chinese men, women and children could be so unreflective of the vile human back in Germany who began and reigned over such atrocities for so long.

In Beijing one night, we were invited to the best hotel in the city (in a city rife with fantastically imperial hostelries) for a sumptuous meal, no regal courtesy spared, with a present-day avatar VP of Siemens, China, which is today still one of China’s largest and most prosperous foreign businesses.

Guess the ordered demise of Siemens in China by der Reich was grossly exaggerated.


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