Sometimes a subject is so powerful that even a middling movie can't wreck it. Such is the case with "John Rabe," which focuses on the little-known story of the eponymous real-life German industrialist whose humanitarian heroism made him the Oskar Schindler of China.
Rabe (Ulrich Tukur), who was born in Hamburg in 1882, spent several years in Africa after studying business in Germany and then, in 1908, went to China, where he lived in the capital city of Nanking (now Nanjing). For nearly 30 years he headed up the branch office of Siemens. The film, written and directed by Florian Gallenberger and loosely derived from Rabe's heartbreaking diaries – first published in 1966, 16 years after his death – begins in 1937 when Rabe is instructed to return to Berlin.
His farewell dinner is upended when Japanese war planes, following Japan's capture of Shanghai, bomb the city. Maneuvering to make the vast Siemens compound a safety zone, Rabe opens the gates to approximately 250,000 civilians, including more than 600 people who camped out in his courtyard. What ensued was the infamous "Rape of Nanking," the magnitude of which – more than 200,000 civilians and POWs slaughtered in eight weeks – the Japanese government has yet to officially acknowledge.
As a psychological study, "John Rabe" is meager – or it would be were it not for Tukur's performance. Tukur is not the whole show here – Steve Buscemi, for example, shows up as an American physician at the local hospital – but without him the film would be historical waxworks. A major stage actor in Germany who was remarkable in "The Lives of Others" and especially "Séraphine," Tukur (who bears a resemblance to the real Rabe) almost imperceptibly takes us step by step through Rabe's conversion from a proud National Socialist who somewhat condescendingly oversees his Chinese workers to a principled man of outrage.
This is somewhat the same trajectory that Liam Neeson followed as Oskar Schindler in "Schindler's List," but Neeson's performance was scaled big, in the heroic-iconic mode. Tukur doesn't reach for those outsized effects, and his performance is much the better for it. He realizes that Rabe did not regard himself as a hero.
Neither, for many years, did anyone else except the Chinese. Gallenberger, alas, skimps on the historical details of Rabe's life both before and after the massacre. The aftermath of Rabe's humanitarianism is even sadder than the film recounts. Back in Berlin, he was arrested by the Gestapo for publicizing the Japanese atrocities. (In the film he writes a letter to Hitler, never answered, imploring an end to the bloodshed.) Following the end of the war, the British at first denied his request for de-Nazification. He died in poverty in 1950. In 1997 the Chinese government moved Rabe's coffin to the Nanking Memorial Hall. Six years later Germany finally paid him official tribute.
Gallenberger doesn't mine the monstrous ironies of the material, but they come through anyway. When we see the decapitated heads of Chinese soldiers and civilians lined up in a bloody row in the killing fields, we don't need to be reminded of the Holocaust. Rabe could not know in 1937 that his beloved Führer would soon perpetrate monstrosities of far greater magnitude, but still one wonders: Didn't he at least read "Mein Kampf"? It's likely that Gallenberger softened Rabe's political contours for us in order to ease his transition to sainthood. Thanks to Tukur, what we get here is still something: a stunning portrait of a good man caught in a widening inferno. Grade: B
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