When one thinks of World War II, many people only think of it as starting in 1939 (or 1941 for the U.S.) and ending in 1945, but many overlook the real beginnings of the war, not starting with Germany, but Japan.
In the 1930s, the capital city of non-communist China was Nanking. In 1937, the Japanese bombed out Nanking and began a series of rapes, tortures, executions, and a contest to see who could behead the most Chinese. All of this was done under the auspices of the Japanese military and Emperor Hirohito (who later weaseled his way out of prosecution after the war).
At that time there was a small clutch of Westerners living in the city who did not flee to Europe or America. Instead, they stayed to try to help the miserable refugees and civilians. One of these brave individuals was a German by the name of John Rabe who was head of the self-made “International Safety Zone.” He and his colleagues worked to try to protect the remaining civilians from the savage and ravenous Japanese soldiers, who would enter the zone to kill suspected Chinese.
These terrors and atrocities would have surely been forgotten had Rabe not recorded his thoughts and photos in his diaries, which were discovered in the 1990s and made into the thrilling book “The Good Man of Nanking.” I recently had the pleasure of watching the movie of his story in the 2009 film “John Rabe” and it doesn’t let down the diaries.
Rabe (played by German actor Ulrich Tukur) is the head of the German Siemen’s power company, with hundreds of Chinese employees and a dream to build a hydroelectric dam for the city. His dreams are dashed when a senior Nazi member fresh from Germany says he is going to replace Rabe, and that he is to leave his beloved China due to the advancing Japanese army.
When the Japanese begin bombing the city, Rabe and his wife flee back to the company in hopes that being German property will deter bombings. Apparently the Chinese know this too, scrambling to get in and away from the bombs. Perhaps the most powerful scene (and most historically ironic) shows Rabe unfurling a giant Nazi flag and having the civilians hide under the flag to prevent the Japanese from continuing the assault. In the end, it works, but this is only the beginning of a hellish month for Rabe and the remaining Westerners.
Despite officially being a Nazi, Rabe has no real idea just how bad Hitler is in Germany, thus allowing his true humanity to flourish. Some don’t trust him, such as Dr. Robert O. Wilson (played amazingly by Steve Buscemi), the head doctor at the nearby hospital. I myself can’t forget the scene when, during a meeting of Westerners debating on helping the Chinese, Dr. Wilson enters, blood-spattered, and sits down nonchalant. When asked how he feels, he replies, “I feel nothing. Seventeen children died before my eyes, some with no arms, no legs, and some with only half a head. I feel nothing.”
Along with a French principal at the local girls school, an anti-Nazi German citizen, and an American citizen, Rabe and Wilson work together to construct a zone for Chinese civilians to be safe from the Japanese. The time they spend there is one month at the most, but it feels like eternity with dwindling supplies, constant raids by the Japanese for girls and supplies, and death and terror in and out of the zone.
I won’t ruin the ending, and you’ll be holding your breath at that point, but I can be sure that anyone who sees this masterpiece of American, German, and Chinese filmmaking will not leave without deep thought or reflection. It’s a pity that Japan, even to this day, denies anything happening in Nanking. That is a terrible shame; for while the Jewish Holocaust has been recognized and apologized for, the Asian Holocaust is still denied vehemently and Japan goes on without repercussions.
If you like the emotion and passion of “Schindler’s List,” then “John Rabe” will surely not disappoint.