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City of War: The Story of John Rabe

Review by: 
Big McLargehuge
John Rabe
Release Date: 
Strand Releasing
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Florian Gallenberger
Ulrich Tukur
Daniel Brühl
Steve Buscemi
Anne Consigny
Dagmar Manzel
Bottom Line: 

If you can pin down Head Cheeze some evening and ply him with enough booze to dull the ragged edges of his psyche, he may tell you of the years when I wrote a novel about The Rape of Nanking. A novel that is not only amateurish, but poorly plotted, and in places borrows liberally from established war movie and book tropes to flesh out what I thought it must have been like to be a Japanese soldier marching on Nanking China in 1937.

See, the thing is, up until very recently there haven't been many films about the Chinese experience in the Sino Japanese war, and later WW2, at least, not in the west. Horror film fans may remember Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre, directed by Tai Fun Mu, released some years back by Unearthed Films, and containing an extras package written and designed by none other than me. 

But short of that, and the Chinese government funded Goodbye Nanking:1937 there hasn't been much of this history brought to western audiences. But, with a real renaissance in both European and Chinese film production, and the wonder of streaming video sites to provide an outlet, some of these otherwise unfilmed events are making their way, finally, to the US. In fact, the day I watched John Rabe I also watched a Chinese film set during the same event called City of  Life and Death (2009) directed by Chuan Lu, both available on Netflix streaming.

Good deal, really.

John Rabe is almost a Merchant/Ivory retelling of the founding and management of the International Safety Zone committee, headed by several Chinese-living Europeans and Americans and dedicated to protecting civilians from the Imperial Japanese Army once the city falls in December 1937. Like many docudrama type historical films it focuses on the internal politics of the Safety Zone Committee and how they deal with Japanese, their own personal beefs, and the lingering dislike between Seimens manager and resident Nazi party chief John Rabe and the only surgeon in the city, American Robert Wilson as a way to tell the larger story of The Rape of Nanking. 

Now, while these two men were instrumental in managing the zone, Rabe as chairman and Wilson as vice chairman, a whole slew of other interesting real people are left out of the story. In some cases they make cameo appearances without a nod to their importance to the whole event, such as Reverend John Magee, and in some cases they are completely replaced by fictional characters such as removing American Minnie Vautrine, head of Gingling Women's College, for Valerie Dupres of an "International Girl's College". There really isn't a good reason to do this other than to hint that there might be a romantic thing between Dupres and Wilson. I suppose the estate of Ms. Vautrine wouldn't have sanctioned such a portrayal. She was an amazing woman, and I recommend the book American Goddess at the Rape of Nanking by Hua Ling Hu for anyone interested in her actual story. 

The focus on this sort of interpersonal stuff could have driven the story completely away from the horrors taking place in and around the city, but for the most part it doesn't. The shadow of dread is always apparent, with machine gun fire echoing through the night and day, the whine of dive bombers, and the ever present threat of Japanese soldiers invading the zone and taking men off to die, or women off to be raped. Meanwhile the Safety Zone Committee does what it can to keep peace in the zone. One of the lingering issues that drives the middle act of the film is the Zone Committee's capitulation with the Japanese to turn over all Chinese soldiers who are hiding in the Safety Zone. 

They do, and all of those surrendered soldiers are led off and slaughtered.

Later. keeping Rabe and Wilson at odds is Rabe' complete belief that Adolph Hitler will respond diplomatically to the telegram Rabe sends informing The Fuhrer of the atrocities taking place in the city. Hitler never answers, by the way.

What seems to be missing most though, is the horror. The Rape of Nanking was astonishingly brutal, and for the better part of two months held the city in the grip of extreme torture. Much of that gruesome awfulness does not make its way into John Rabe, instead the film allows diary excerpts (in voice over as Rabe writes) to illustrate the worst of the events in the city. There is the side story of a Chinese student who is surreptitiously taking photos of the atrocities in the zone, but this is another fictional character meant to anchor the audience to the actual Chinese residents of the city and while is sort of almost succeeds, that subplot never goes anywhere. This was also supposed to sort of mirror the actual story of Reverend John Magee who shot a few rolls of 8mm silent film and smuggled it out of the country. It's the only known footage of the massacre in existence. Some of it is available on youtube.

The Japanese too, are only given enough screen time to be screaming at the cast, or in huge group shots. Prince Asoka, who led the attack on the city for ailing General Matsui Iwane, is portrayed as a ruthless, almost crazed samurai throwback who delights in the death around him, and even more-so when he can force Rabe and the others of the Zone Committee into terrible bargains that always result in mass death.

Still, these are sort of minor quibbles, and had this gone the way of Black Sun and focusing more on the extreme violence, no one would watch it, so there's that.

The cast is a veritble who's-who in International Cinema with Herr Rabe portrayed expertly by  Ulrich Tukur, his right hand man, George Rosen portrayed by  Daniel Bruhl, and Robert Wilson played by the always entertaining Steve Buscemi.

One last player in this that is noticeably absent is Nanking itself. Nanking is an ancient city with whole districts that hadn't changed much in 500 years, narrow curved alleys and tiny cobblestone streets that wind through and around the districts behind the wall. Almost none of that is every shown in the film with the cast restricted to interior sets, the Seimen's hydroelectric dam exterior, or amid cloying heaps of rubble.

There are a few historical errors too, like the way they portrayed the sinking of the USS Panay, a river gunboat of the type seen in the film The Sand Pebbles, with a CGI ocean liner. The story of the USS Panay is interesting too, but alas, that doesn't make it into the film.

Now, all of that said, you could do worse than spend a couple of hours here. There's definitely enough historically accurate stuff to make even the most persnickety viewer happy, and while the film sometimes slides into heavy exposition, it never manages to be boring. 

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