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After 28 years building and managing a vast Siemens plant in Nanking, John Rabe is ordered by the new Nazi regime to close it down. Before he can pack, the Japanese army, lead unofficially by a bloodthirsty imperial uncle, lays siege to the city. Rabe accepts, as prominent representative of Japans' major European ally, to head the Western ex-pats society's plan to start and run an international zone, like worked in Shangai. Rabe however wants it to save his workers and their close ones, over 200,000, and sacrifices all his personal interests. Written by
Not surprisingly, none of the major film companies in Japan were interested in investing - or indeed screening - the film. See more »
The USS Panay is shown as a passenger ship when she was in fact a U.S. Navy River Gunboat. The movie shows the Panay being attacked within sight of Nanking (now known as Nanjing) but in reality it had moved 28 miles upriver and dropped anchor, along with three Standard Oil tankers. The attack lasted for 2.5 hours until the ship finally sunk. The attack left 3 sailors dead, 43 sailors and 5 civilians wounded. See more »
... essentially all has been said, but some reviews criticize the diversions from the original story. These would seem to have something to do with Chinese censorship following concerns about economic cooperation with Japan. That may explain the sometimes disjointed story structure, and the inclusion of a 'good' Japanese officer warning the Germans about imminent danger to the safety zone, while there is still ample display of Japanese brutality - even though, if you ever visited the memorial in Nanjing itself, you'll find these rather tame in comparison to the photos there.
At the time of its release in Germany, reviews were largely negative because Rabe's Nazi Party membership was downplayed in the film. His naivety in regard to Hitler is portrayed (writing him letters urging Hitler to intervene on behalf of the safety zone), but this was seen as way too ambivalent. Gallenberger was criticized for making a 'big' film with Hollywood clichés. And instead of a competition slot at the Berlinale, the film was screened as a 'Special' because the festival apparently shied away from controversy. Having only seen it now for these reasons, I must say that these complaints are exaggerated. There's nothing wrong with a German director trying to make a real cinematic feature instead of an overblown TV production, as it is usually the case. And Gallenberger was certainly the right man for the job, given his previous endeavor of a German Bollywood film. Sadly, the entirely justified vilification of the Nazi regime still clouds the perception of individuals living in that era, and there's some sort of German instinct to snap at everything that could be even remotely interpreted as euphemism - which isn't the case here.
What I really liked about the film was that it clarifies that the safety zone was an international 'joint venture' so to speak, instead of being due to the efforts of Rabe alone. Buscemi played all the right keys with his character, and still restrained his presence to allow Ulrich Tukur to take central stage. And his performance is definitely worth the BlueRay. He is one of the very few German actors with aura; Daniel Brühl, in my opinion, isn't, but he's pretty good here, as his scenes with Tukur are balanced very well.
If you found John Rabe's story amazing, you might be interested in the even more controversial Johannes Lepsius, who was the principal witness of the Armenian Genocide during World War I - under similar circumstances, as Germany and Turkey were allies, as with the Japanese at the time of the Nanjing Massacre. I couldn't help but think of that while watching 'John Rabe' - that a film based on Lepsius would be far more controversial than this one, since Turkey denies the Armenian genocide to this day even more vehemently than Japan denies Nanjing.
I give 'John Rabe' 8/10 because I feel this film has been treated a little harshly, but 7.5 sounds just about right.
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