John Rabe Made in: Germany Language: German, Chinese (Mandarin), Japanese, English Director: Florian Gallenberger Starring: Ulrich Tukur, Steve Buscemi, Anne Consigny, Teruyuki Kagawa, Nakajima Kesago, Daniel Brühl, Dagmar Manzel, Zhang Jingchu, Fang Yu, Mathias Herrmann Year: 2009
Based on a true story
Synopsis: During the Second Sino-Japanese War, the invading Imperial Japanese Army has conquered Shanghai and is advancing onward towards Nanking (now called Nanjing), which was China's capital at the time. German businessman John Rabe (Ulrich Tukur) is the director of the Siemens subsidiary there, and has resided in China with his wife Dora (Dagmar Manzel) for twenty-seven years.
Due to sweeping political changes in his own country, Rabe is called to return to Berlin. Although he hides the full scope of his emotions from Dora, John truly doesn't want to leave. He has grown fond of China and his hundreds of loyal Chinese employees (many of whom speak and understand German). At a grand ball on the eve of his departure, things take a frightening turn when Rabe's farewell speech is interrupted by Japanese bombardment.
As panic ensues among the civilians, Rabe allows the Siemens industrial facility to be used as a temporary safe haven. The next day, the handful of remaining foreign officials struggle to find a way of dealing with the inevitable onslaught at the hands of the Japanese Army.
Dr. Rosen (Daniel Brühl), a young German diplomat with Jewish heritage, proposes the creation of a safety zone. One such zone was proven effective in Shanghai, and could help in Nanking. Valerie Duprés (Anne Consigny), the head of the International Girls College, nominates none other than John Rabe. Her hopes is that Rabe's influence and nationality (amidst the growing alliance between Germany and Japan) will be a factor in convincing the Japanese authorities to permit the establishment of the zone.
With great reluctance rising Rabe agrees and uses his Nazi Party affiliation to set up the safety zone. Chagrined at the prospect of placing John Rabe in this position is Duprés' husband, Robert O. Wilson (Steve Busemi).
Wilson is an American medical doctor who has witnessed, first-hand, the brutality of the Japanese attack and is disgusted with the notion of having a Nazi Party affiliate in charge of aiding civilians. But he eventually goes along with the plans, seeing that Rabe's leadership might be the only way he can obtain dwindling medical supplies for the injured.
With the situation becoming more desperate by the day, and as the atrocities committed at the hands of the Japanese military multiply, Rabe and his small group must set aside their own political/cultural divisions if they want to succeed in their humanitarian mission. And as they save more lives while in the thick of the Nanking Massacre, they do so at ever increasing risk to their own...
The Good: Gut wrenching, emotional, and unflinching in its portrayal of wartime atrocities, John Rabe is an excellent war film that details a moment in history that deserves as much examination and respect as the Holocaust. The Nanking Massacre, a controversial subject to this very day, isn't mentioned in many history books and this film will probably have curious filmgoers scrambling to Google to find out more.
There are many themes and characters to keep track of, but John Rabe somehow remains focused and organized. Ulrich Tukur, Daniel Brühl, Steve Buscemi, Anne Consigny, and the rest of the cast do an excellent job, while their respective characters are sufficiently developed. Instead of giving a generic "war is hell" message, director Florian Gallenberger provides specific examples (either through dialogue, scenes, or explicit visuals) as to why.
The violence, however shocking, is presented very carefully and always in context with the overall theme of evil and the impossible decisions that the committed humanitarians must face. It's very easy for violence to become numbing in a film such as this, but Gallenberger seems to know exactly when to be graphic and when to leave acts of brutality to the imagination (while evoking maximum emotional effect).
The Bad: Not much, but there are few things I'll nit-pick about: Although Ulrich Tukur is a great actor, he didn't always convince me that he a cool-headed character with strong emotions brewing underneath. He seemed a little too detached- just a little more fire would have been good.
And throughout his performance, he didn't quite convince me that he was a guy who had spent twenty-seven years living in China, getting to know its people and culture.
Also, the portrayal of the Chinese civilians (however sympathetic) was a little problematic for me as well. They were pretty two-dimensional for the most part, with the exception of (Zhang Jingchu). The Chinese either came across as little more than bullet magnets (like the Somalis in Black Hawk Down) or like helpless cattle.
Who would like this movie: John Rabe is for you if you're a fan of foreign films, foreign languages, and in the mood for a war drama that's on par with Schindler's List. This is also one for anyone interested in significant events that took place during the Second World War, particularly the Nanking Massacre. It would also be helpful if you're familiar with Germany's influence in China prior to World War II.
It's very much an underdog story, like most tales of heroism during wartime. The message of ordinary people rising to become heroes is nothing new, but John Rabe is very well presented and even inspirational.
And finally, this film is definitely for you if want to see Steve Buscemi speak Chinese. His pronunciation is quite good in some places, and for Tarantino fans, parts of Buscemi's performance here might make you think of his character from Reservoir Dogs.