05/20/2010 11:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Director's Film Revisits the Rape of Nanking From a New Perspective

As a German born in the 1970s, writer-director Florian Gallenberger understands his own country's role in World War II genocide. So he was careful in what he had to say about the Japanese' massacres and mass rape in Nanking in 1937 in his film, John Rabe, opening in limited release today (5/21/10).

"Being German, I'm not one to point fingers or to put blame on the Japanese," Gallenberger, 38, says in a telephone interview. "But from what I read, for the Japanese, the Chinese were definitely a lower race. The way they behaved to the Japanese was very comparable to the way the Germans behaved during the Holocaust. Of course, what the Germans did was on a much bigger scale. But the mindset was similar."

In John Rabe, Gallenberger tells the true story of a German businessman, Rabe, who was head of Siemens AG's plant in Nanking and had been living in China for more than 20 years when the Japanese invaded in 1937. The invasion came just as Rabe was to be replaced at the Siemens plant; instead, his replacement fled - and Rabe stayed on to join a group of foreigners who tried to protect Chinese civilians from Japanese slaughter by creating a safety zone around the various embassies and Nanking College.

Part of the film consists of voice-over narration of Rabe (played by Ulrich Tukur) reading from the diary that the real Rabe wrote: "I'd say 50 percent of that is direct quotes," Gallenberger says. "Sometimes we had to combine different moments into one quote so the story moves forward. But we tried to stay as close to the original as possible.

"We show Rabe writing with a pen in his diary. In fact, the real Rabe typed his diary, which I find so strange. And it would have been strange for the film, which is why we had him writing by hand."

When Rabe eventually did return to Germany, he took with him film and photographic evidence - which was confiscated by the Gestapo, when he tried to make it public (no doubt because Germany and Japan were allies). The German government also kept him from lecturing or publishing anything about the massacres, which cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

The massacres were, in fact, filmed by the Japanese; Japanese newspapers ran stories about two Japanese soldiers who had a contest to see who could behead the most Chinese with swords. But the Japanese government destroyed much of the evidence of the brutality and, to this day, continues to deny that the atrocities occurred at the level that the Chinese claim.