John Rabe, 2009, France/China/Germany
John Rabe is not a name that is particularly well known to most North Americans. Indeed, I hadn’t heard of him before doing research into this film prior to watching it. John Rabe (Ulrich Tukur) was a Siemens employee working in Nanking in late 1937. He was a member of the Nazi party and due to return home to Germany when the Nanking Massacre begins. Rabe ushers Chinese employees and other civilians onto the factory grounds under a Nazi flag, where the Japanese airplanes will not bomb. Rabe reluctantly becomes the leader of an initiative to create the Nanking Safety Zone, a plan that was proposed by Dr. Georg Rosen (Daniel Brühl), a German-Jewish diplomat. He works closely with Rosen, Dr. Robert O. Wilson (Steve Buscemi), an American doctor who dislikes Rabe for his loyalty to Hitler, and Valérie Dupres (Anne Consigny), the director of an International Girls’ College. Together they must run the Nanking Safety Zone, negotiate with Japanese personnel, and keep the Chinese refugees safe at a very perilous time in human history.
Rabe, and his fellow committee members were all heroes who were able to save over 200,000 lives. The film never shies away from Rabe’s faults – he was initially very reluctant to act as the leader of the committee, and he is a member of the Nazi party, even writing Hitler personally for help stopping the Japanese army from killing Chinese citizens in Nanking. This scene was purposefully uncomfortable, as it relies on the audience’s knowledge of history, and the fact that Hitler clearly wouldn’t care about what the Japanese army is up to, given that he commits his own genocide a few short years later. In some respects, it reminded me a Schindler’s List – both films are about businessmen members of the Nazi party saving lives using their influence and connections.
Tukur was wonderful in the title role. Some of my favourite scenes were the ones where he and Buscemi butted heads. Both characters were simply too alike and too stubborn, but it was a joy to see their relationship evolve over the course of the film. Brühl was excellent as Dr. Rosen, who often acts as the sole calm-head and voice of reason in the film.
Another thing this film touches on, is the fact that the Nanking Massacre is still debated and even denied in Japan to this day. Despite the fact that there is eyewitness testimony from a great many people, there is a minority of people in Japan who deny it happened, or deny the scale of it, including politicians. This is horrifying. John Rabe was actually never released in Japan, despite being about a period of Japanese history.
John Rabe was a wonderful film about an important piece of history, and is available for purchase on Amazon.