||Though comparisons of “John Rabe” to “Schindler’s List” are inevitable—and, to be honest, invidious—Florian Gallenberger’s film is, despite a reliance on docu-drama contrivances, a reasonably intelligent, impressively mounted account of a little-known act of twentieth-century heroism: the efforts of the eponymous German industrialist to protect the residents of Nanking during the 1937 Japanese occupation on the city, following their brutal takeover of Shanghai
Ulrich Tukur plays Rabe, the long-time manager of the China branch of the Siemens company, who’s spent years building up the operation but is at point of departing for Berlin with his wife. Though he’s a committed Nazi, he’s also a man of principle, and concerned for the welfare of the Chinese, whom he considers childlike. His newly-arrived successor, Werner Fleiss (Mathias Herrmann), is a very different sort of National Socialist, callous and indifferent to the locals. He informs the shocked Rabe that it will be his job to close down Siemens China altogether, making all his work for naught.
Before the change of leadership can occur, however, Nanking is attacked by Japanese forces and civilians begin to be slaughtered. Rabe has the opportunity to escape, but at the urging of Valerie Dupres (Ann Consigny), the French headmistress of a school for Chinese girls, he remains and becomes the head of a Safety Zone where at least some of the locals can be protected from the Japanese, who, under Prince Asaka (Teruyuki Kagawa), are slaughtering citizens and soldiers alike.
Much of the film is devoted to recounting Rabe’s efforts on behalf of the Chinese—including expenditure of his own funds—and his pain over not only the tragedy unfolding around him, but also the realization that his own government—to which he’s written for assistance—is complicit in it. But a good deal of attention is given to the other members of his group—not only Valerie, but also Robert Wilson (Steve Buscemi), a tart-tongued, cynical American doctor, and Georg Rosen (Daniel Bruehl), a “good” German diplomat exiled to distant posts because of Jewish blood in his family tree. The Chinese are treated largely as background extras, except for Langshu (Zhang Jingchu), one of Valerie’s students who photographs evidence of Japanese atrocities and goes out on a few dangerous underground missions, and Han (Fang Yu), Rabe’s aide and driver, whom the German proves unable to save.
Gallenberger’s script is based on Rabe’s diaries, but despite that it never manages to construct a multi-dimensional portrait of the man, who remains a largely one-note figure despite Tukur’s committed performance. (A title card in the closing credits informs us that when Rabe returned to Germany late in 1937, he was treated as a pariah because of his pro-Chinese actions, and that after the war ended he was excluded from the de-Nazification program and died, unrecognized and impoverished, in 1950. Had the script managed to dramatize these events, it might have given the character greater depth.) The other leading characters are drawn equally sketchily, and Consigny, Bruehl and Buscemi don’t do much more to fill in the spaces than Tukur, with Buscemi in particular overdoing the stridency. Zhang exemplifies the mousy, reticent quality that the picture assigns to the Chinese victims, who are presented by and large as peaceful lambs desperately in need of western shepherding.
The brutality of the Japanese, on the other hand, is portrayed unflinchingly, and it’s in that respect that “John Rabe” is most successful. The so-called rape of Nanking is one of the horrors of the twentieth century that hasn’t received the attention it deserves (the Japanese still refuse to acknowledge the extent of the tragedy), and by focusing on it, the film does a service.
It’s also been made with care and even elegance from a technical standpoint. The locations are well-chosen and the period trappings are convincing (Tu Juhua was production designer and Lisy Christi the costumer), and the visual effects (supervised by Joachim Grueninger)—like an air assault on a passenger ship—are nicely done. Juergen Juerges’ widescreen cinematography gives the images a burnished glow.
So even though one can imagine a more dramatically imaginative treatment of its title character, “John Rabe” emerges as a docu-drama that deals, however imperfectly, with an event worth remembering.