It's only in the last 15 years or so that the truth about the Rape of Nanking has broken through the wall of propaganda thrown up by the Japanese to cover their own tracks and their own embarrassment.
In the past decade, however, there have been books (including the thorough Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang), documentaries and even fiction films that have touched upon the wholesale carnage that invading Japanese troops visited upon civilians and soldiers alike in Nanking at the end of 1937.
John Rabe, a new film by Florian Gallenberger opening in limited released Friday (5/21/10), comes at it from a different angle, watching the invasion and massacre from the viewpoint of a German businessman who is about the leave China. Instead, he finds himself tapped to lead a humanitarian effort by other foreigners, all of whom are the only thing standing between the Chinese and wholesale slaughter by the Japanese.
Rabe (pronounced Rah-buh), as played by Ulrich Tukur, is a member of the Nazi party by necessity, though he hasn't lived in Germany since before World War I. Instead, he has risen to become the head of the Siemens AG, the German company that has built power plants and dams in China's interior. But, as 1937 draws to a close, Rabe and his wife are notified that they've been reassigned to headquarters in Berlin, replaced by a more fervent Nazi functionary.
Before they can leave, however, the city is bombed and invaded by the Japanese - and Rabe's replacement takes the opportunity to flee. Rabe stays on, becoming part of a group of foreigners - principally American and European - who do what they can to halt the slaughter.
This mostly consists of convincing the Japanese to allow them to create a safety zone to protect civilians: women, children, students. But it provides only limited protection; the Japanese seem to violate it at will, using the excuse that they believe Chinese soldiers are hiding in the zone (which, occasionally, they are).
Gallenberger's drama, based on Rabe's actual diaries, follows Rabe's evolution from businessman with a certain paternal fondness for the Chinese to a courageous voice, willing to risk his own life (while playing on the alliance between Japan and Hitler) to keep the Japanese from casually killing hundreds of people.
Yet Gallenberger doesn't miss the irony of a Nazi working against genocide. Rabe's opposite on the safety-zone committee is an American doctor (Steve Buscemi), who takes an instant dislike to Rabe, simply because he is a Nazi. Only gradually do the two effect their own tense truce, joining together in a mutual cause.
Gallenberger punctuates the film with entries from Rabe's diary, read by Tukur. Many of these moments are illustrated by archival footage of the actual events that Rabe is describing.
In some ways, that works against Gallenberger's drama; reality is so much more piercing than the dramatization. Gallenberger also tends to keep the dramatized violence offscreen, focusing on the reaction of the foreign nationals rather than the images of graphic brutality. On the one hand, that dampens the effect because we can't see what it is that so horrifies them; on the other hand, it sensationalizes it because their expressions inflame the audience's imagination.
Still, what Gallenberger has going for him is Ulrich Tukur, an actor of great restraint and yet great expressiveness. Tukur (most recently seen in The White Ribbon, North Face and The Lives of Others), with his open face and fussy little mustache, hides a little behind Rabe's glasses - but can't disguise the raging mix of emotions beneath the surface: outrage, self-preservation, sadness, fear. He has a strong supporting cast - particularly Buscemi as the prickly doctor and Anne Consigny as a college professor who is part of the Safety Zone committee.
Even if you're familiar with the shameful history of Nanking, John Rabe offers a unique perspective. It's yet another piece of the puzzle of a disgraceful - and too-little-known - moment in history.