Welcome look at an unsung hero
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, September 17, 2010
Chances are you've never heard of John Rabe. Who'd ever heard of Oskar Schindler before "Schindler's List"?
Like Schindler, Rabe (1882-1950) was a German businessman and Nazi party member. He has been called the Oskar Schindler of China for his efforts -- while working for the Chinese division of the Siemens company in what was then called Nanking -- to save hundreds of thousands of Chinese lives during the 1937 siege of that city by the Japanese, a siege now known as the Nanjing Massacre.
And now Rabe (pronounced RAH-beh) has an award-winning movie about him, too. ("John Rabe" won several Bavarian Film Awards and German Film Awards last year.) Based on Rabe's diaries, the fictionalized telling by German writer-director Florian Gallenberger is actually a pretty darn gripping yarn, though the odds of its winning any American movie prizes seem long, given that it's playing at one area theater and that its director's name isn't Spielberg.
The limited release is a shame, because Gallenberger's film deserves to be seen. It shines, on virtually every level that Spielberg's 1993 Oscar winner did, even if it shares the earlier film's ever-so-slight tendency toward melodrama. As Rabe, Ulrich Tukur ("North Face," "Seraphine") gives a poignant, understated performance. The direction is filled with nail-biting suspense. And if anything, the moral issues of the film are more complex than in "Schindler's List."
Rabe, like Schindler a Nazi in name only, ought to have been on the side of the Japanese, who were allies of Germany when they attacked China. But when the invading Japanese troops start massacring and raping innocent Chinese citizens -- including Rabe's workers -- he agrees to help set up a neutral "safety zone" within the city, off-limits to both Chinese and Japanese troops. His odd partners in this endeavor are a Nazi-hating American doctor (Steve Buscemi), a German Jewish diplomat (Daniel Brühl) and the French headmistress of a Chinese girl's school (Anne Consigny). At one point, the headmistress secretly shelters hundreds of Chinese soldiers at her school, with the tacit approval of Rabe. His refusal to turn them over to the Japanese is an action of solidarity, as well as compassion. Still, it jeopardized the lives of all 200,000-plus refugees.
It also underscores the film's most interesting dynamic. Rabe's friends -- an American, a Jew and a Frenchwoman -- should be his natural enemies. And his enemies -- the Japanese -- should be his friends.
Though Gallenberger takes some liberties in laying out Rabe's story (that French headmistress, for instance, was actually an American), he's faithful enough to its heart. Though the extent of the Nanjing Massacre is still controversial today, most have come to accept that the Japanese were guilty of atrocities, thanks in large part to Iris Chang's best-selling 1997 book, "The Rape of Nanking."
But "John Rabe" is no documentary. Rather, it is a tale of a true hero, even if in its minor details it's less than entirely true.
For a movie with ambitions as big as "John Rabe," that doesn't just make it good. That makes it epic.
Contains obscenity, nudity and miscellaneous war casualties resulting from gunfire, bombs, and beheadings. In German, Chinese, Japanese and English with English subtitles.