JOHN RABE Review

Editor, Europe; Rotterdam, The Netherlands (@ardvark23)
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JOHN RABE Review

The big winner at this year's German Film Awards was Florian Gallenberger's "John Rabe". The film, which tells the story of how a German industrialist saved 200.000 Chinese civilians during the Nanjing massacres in 1937, got 4 of the statues (endearingly called the LOLAs) including "best picture" and "best actor".
 
But while I don't have a problem with actor Ulrich Tukur getting awards for his performance as John Rabe, the movie as a whole will not get much praise from me. While Gallenberger's second full-length feature film at times approaches greatness, an overabundance of "Hollywoodisms" badly mar it.

I'll elaborate, but first..:  
 

The Story:
 
In December 1937 John Rabe, working as a director for Siemens AG, prepares to go home to Germany after a 27 year stay in China. But two days before he is scheduled to leave Nanjing (then the capital), the Japanese invade.
 
At first Rabe is not too worried. After all, the Japanese are allies to Nazi Germany and he thinks a bit of Japanese efficiency may even do the corrupt Chinese government some good. Nevertheless he allows himself to be coerced into setting up a Nanjing Safety Zone for civilians, getting both the Chinese and the Japanese to agree that as long as there are no soldiers or weapons in the Zone, the civilians can be left alone by both sides.
 
But the situation degenerates quickly after the Japanese win full control over Nanjing and soon the Zone is overflowing with more than 200.000 refugees. Worse, the Japanese army performs atrocities on a daily basis, looting, raping and killing at will outside of the Safety Zone, and sometimes within. Rabe starts to realize that he is witness to a crime against humanity of baffling proportions, and tries his best to keep as many of the population within the Safety Zone alive as possible.
 
 
The Movie:
  
When you tell a story about one of the best-known and best documented atrocities of the 20th century, one which is still contested by different factions to this day, you'd better be very careful with how you treat your subject and how much artistic license you allow yourself. Furthermore, in a biopic you expect the filmmakers to try and convey information about a person and the circumstances which made him or her special. Some over-dramatization is allowed of course because it gets very hard to tell a story without it, and if the end result bestows an emotional insight upon the audience which would otherwise not be possible then it might even be good to bend the truth a bit. 

But for the film "John Rabe", Florian Gallenberger tackles the subject of the Nanjing Massacre and the role John Rabe played in it. And in light of the above I have to say that while his film is undeniably impressive it also contains some very artificial off-key notes which spoil the end result for me. 

It all starts well enough: the film introduces John Rabe (played by Ulrich Tukur who bears an almost uncanny likeness to the real Rabe) as a devoted industrial, proud of his achievements in Nanjing, who despite misgivings against the Chinese way of doing things still has fond paternalistic feelings for the many people working for him. He is a member of the Nazi party out of networking convenience, and is an admirer of the Japanese. The Siemens factories in Nanjing are draped in German flags bearing the swastika, and Chinese workers give Rabe the Heil Hitler-salute (which looks deliciously ironic). The film also shows the tender relationship Rabe has with his wife, who has been both a companion and confidant during his decades in China. And when the Japanese air force suddenly bombards Nanjing and the Siemens factories, Rabe's quick wits and daring is shown saving a lot of the nearby civilians.  

So far, so good...

But then we get to the story about the Nanjing Safety Zone, and things get a bit weird. There is a "last-boat-out-of-Nanjing" sequence which looks amazing but makes you wonder if it is actually possible to have happened that way. And I'm not referring to the Japanese attack (which is suitably shocking), I'm referring to what Rabe and the other members of the Safety Zone Committee are doing. It looks staged and purposely intended to milk the very last tear out of the audience.

What happens next is that you get to see the Safety Zone Committee (headed by Rabe) discussing the running of the Zone, how to provide food for the refugees, and talk outraged about what crimes the Japanese soldiers are committing. We also get to hear about the difficult decisions the Committee faces, the endless triages and dilemmas. But, and there is the catch, we never see how these are resolved. Sure, Rabe gets into some difficult situations but compared to the Rabe we see in Lu Chuan's "City of Life and Death"  he gets it easier in Gallenberger's film, with far fewer Devil's Alternatives to solve. Gone is the clever and resourceful man we saw in the opening of the film, and while it is nice to show a very human (and humanist) John Rabe he is unfortunately also displayed as being pretty naive here.

So while the film shows a decent overview of the three months that Rabe more-or-less ran the Nanjing Safety Zone we never get to see how he actually managed to make it work, and in the end you start to wonder why he is so revered in the first place. Instead we get to see some very convoluted subplots. The worst of these concerns a Chinese schoolgirl with a camera who is played by Zhang Jingchu of "Jade Warrior" and "The Beast Stalker" fame. Jingchu is beautiful and positively radiant in her role, but the script has her character act stupidly to the point that you almost hope she is killed off before she sends all 200.000 refugees to an early grave! 

This whole subplot also shows the film's strange coyness concerning the subject of rape. Rape is mentioned, several times, but as an almost far away generality, never as an actuality. The real John Rabe was very explicit in his complaints to the Japanese in this regard, listing specific offenses in detail to make sure his listeners got embarrassed. But the film never gives an example, no aftermath of violation, nothing. There is a sole almost-rape in the movie but it ends in a ridiculous action-movie way, with a relative of the victim barging in and shooting the would-be rapists. Yeah, right... wishful thinking.

Still, to make sure that we get angry at the Japanese, Florian Gallenberger has us watch a class of schoolgirls having to undress into full (frontal) nudity in front of a Japanese officer so he can check there are no male soldiers hiding amongst them. Which may seem like an outrageous demand, but that same officer just watched someone dressed as a soldier enter the school, and all girls are trying to look as much as boys anyway to avoid being raped. Furthermore, the officer agrees with the school staff to send his soldiers out of the room so he is the only one inspecting the girls. And he doesn't take advantage of the situation either. Honestly... given the circumstances it seems like a reasonable request and the officer acts in a pretty honorable way.

So what exactly was the purpose of that scene? The REAL school in the REAL Nanjing had over 100 of its students raped by Japanese soldiers, but this never even gets mentioned in the film. All we see here is a few girls disrobe (and looking suspiciously healthy while doing it, the camera almost leering at them) and Safety Zone Committee members acting outraged, which is comically hypocritical since the school was actively hiding Chinese soldiers anyway. Is this supposed to make me angry at the Japanese?

Look, I neither need nor want to see a rape in this film but I do think the subject should be given the gravity it deserves. Hell, seeing women weep afterwards suffices. Because according to John Rabe himself, rapes actually happened and were not just rumored. If only disrobing REALLY was the extent of what the women of Nanjing had to suffer...

At some point in the movie it looks like Florian Gallenberger will employ the same attitude towards violence, with even the mass shootings of prisoners of war looking remarkably clean. But just when you think the whole film is going to be "Nanjing-light" we get the decapitation match, and things suddenly get really gruesome.

This combination makes the movie seem somewhat unbalanced and, for lack of a better word, doctored. By the time it is all capped off by an almost literally "cheery" ending the film had lost me. 

One of the reasons why this irks me is that Florian Gallenberger ALMOST gets it right. His achievements with the available budget are remarkable. Sets and costumes, especially the Siemens factories and some city overviews (of which there are far too few) look stunning. Cinematography, sound, editing, effects... on the technical side there is nothing wrong with "John Rabe".

Acting is a mixed bag but generally very good. As said Ulrich Tukur is very believable as John Rabe, and Dagmar Manzel is excellent as his wife Dora.

For simplification's sake all of the bad decisions made by the Japanese are lumped onto a single character: prince Asaka Yasuhiko. A full nephew of emperor Hirohito and therefore untouchable by anyone in the Japanese army, the real Asaka famously gave the order to "kill all captives" (despite having lived in Europe for years and knowing the Geneva conventions by heart) and this is said to have started the massacre of both prisoners of war and civilians. In the film he is played as a one-dimensional buffoon by Teruyuki Kagawa, who after his excellent performance as the lead in "Tokyo Sonata" is disappointingly given nothing to do here but look evil.

Even more disappointing is Steve Buscemi as Dr. Robert Wilson, the sole Western physician who acted as a surgeon in the Nanjing Safety Zone and stayed throughout the Japanese occupation (even after Rabe had left). An interesting character and worthy of his own movie, Dr. Wilson is portrayed here as a cartoon. All Steve Buscemi has to do is look outraged, be right all the time about the Japanese and be wrong all the time about John Rabe.

Better off is Daniel Bruhl as the diplomatic aid Georg Rosen, who witnessed what the Japanese did in Shanghai and basically comes up with every sensible idea in the movie.

So, to go all the way back to my description of a biopic, does the film "John Rabe" provide me with an overview of why the person John Rabe is considered to be so special? On the one hand yes, but on the other hand he seems strangely passive for a lot of the film. Does the film "John Rabe" provide me with an overview of the circumstances surrounding John Rabe? Again, it is partly successful but the script contains some odd embellishments and omissions which do a lot of harm.   

As for the subject of what really happened in December 1937 in Nanjing: whether you call it "The Nanjing Massacre" or "The Rape of Nanjing", it is still a touchy subject. The Japanese (bar some radical idiots) do not deny that atrocities happened, but as a country they refuse to acknowledge the size of the disaster as claimed by the Chinese. The real Rabe himself always estimated the number of killed civilians within the city to be as high as 60.000 (which is nowadays more or less grudgingly agreed by the Japanese government), but according to the Chinese over 300.000 people were killed, and tellingly the movie quotes this last number as being the true one.

In any case the true number may have only statistical value: any occupying force who leaves either 60.000 or 300.000 people dead in a single city cannot claim to be particularly humanitarian in nature.

Whatever the case, I know people who do business with China and they say that whenever you mention John Rabe over there, people start to smile and give positive reactions. After the war the real John Rabe may have been spurned by most of Germany and the Allied nations (who thought of him as just another Nazi), but he received aid from China until his death, and is still revered as a hero of the people.

 

Conclusion:

In truth, any movie taking place in an historical background can be scrutinized for accuracy but this is not always fair. However, given the subject matter of "John Rabe" I expected a bit more than a typical Milos Forman-esque preaching biopic. It doesn't help that after the last shot you get some slides detailing John Rabe's life after Nanjing, which frankly seems like it would make a good movie in itself...

I'm not sure how many liberties writer/director Florian Gallenberger took with the source material but the end product feels artificial and that is, in my opinion, a crying shame.

Because there is also much to like here. The sets and look of the film are impressive (if only the budget had allowed more of them...) and some of the performances are excellent, specifically the one by lead Ulrich Tukur.

So I left the cinema angry at the missed opportunities rather than at the Japanese or human nature in general. Surely that can't have been the goal of this film?

 

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