Ever since reading Iris Chang's book The Rape of Nanking several years ago, I've been interested in learning more about the topic. I've seen a few film like Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre and Nanking as well as reading what I could find online. But since these sources focused on the atrocities committed during the Japanese occupation of Nanking, I was excited to see a movie made about John Rabe, head of the international safety zone committee in Nanking.
I've had this movie in my Netflix queue for quite a long time, but have put off watching it for a couple reasons. First, the content is somber and gut wrenching, similar to Schindler's List, so I felt I had to be in the right mood to watch it. Second, since John Rabe was a German businessman, I expected the movie to be in German and had to be in the mood to read subtitles. As luck would have it, about half of the movie was in English so I didn't have nearly as much reading as I had anticipated. I would estimate 40% was in German and 10% in Japanese. I actually found it quite odd that a movie set in China would contain virtually no Chinese dialogue.
That said, the backstory of this film is that in 1937, early in WWII, the Japanese military invaded China, and in it's conquest and subsequent occupation of the city of Nanking, committed unspeakable atrocities against the city's residents. In a move of desperation, John Rabe, along with several other foreign businessmen, missionaries, doctors, and professors founded an 'international safety zone' - a demilitarized refuge in the city for the civilian residents to remain safe. Using whatever political connections, international media attention, or other pressure they could muster, the got the Japanese army to agree to remain out of the zone. Despite helping to save the lives of over 200,000 Chinese civilians, John Rabe was subsequently arrested upon his return to Germany in 1938 for his attempts to pursuade the German government to intervene. Following the war, he was stripped of his work permit by Allied forces for his membership in the Nazi party and died penniless. One final tragedy.
This film is based on the diary of John Rabe, and from what I know of the subject is fairly historically accurate. It does not dwell on the carnage of the massacre, but rather the individuals involved in creating the safety zone and the struggle to maintain it. Since the safety committee members are so diverse - some German, some British, some American, there is a great deal of friction among themselves that must be overcome in addition to the struggles of protecting and providing for an enormous group of refugees. Nowhere is this more evident than in the interplay between Rabe and Dr Robert Wilson, played by Steve Buscemi (the lone actor I recognized). Their mutual dislike is palpable and yet the respect for each other's dedication allows for enough common ground for them to work together. The acting is superb, and I felt that the interplay between Rabe and Wilson in particular shined.
I enjoyed the cinematography, and one particular technique which I found quite effective was when a scene would start in grainy black and white, making it appear like archival footage, and as the scene progressed would slowly transform into full color. It was used a few times and I felt it added gravitas to the scene and made it feel more genuine. And while the film slowed at times, overall I thought the pacing was about right. It allowed time for the emotions to sink in before rushing off to the next scene.
I feel like there is a lot more I should say, but mostly I think that the story is an important one and the script is well written. Ultimately I found John Rabe to be a very powerful and poignant film. It's a reminder that one man or a small group of individuals can stand up to overwhelming odds and make a very real difference. It manages to be both tragic and uplifting at the same time. While certainly not a feel good movie by any means, it is still an important movie to watch.