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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Conscience of a Nazi
by Donald Levit

It is the misfortune of John Rabe to come out seventeen years after benchmark Schindler’s List, a quarter-century after Gerry Green’s NBC Wallenberg: A Hero’s Story and others. This second feature from writer-director Florian Gallenberger will also call up comparisons with the 2007 Nanking, a combination of reenactment of what Japanese school texts still refer to as an “incident” and bare-stage document readings by actors, including Jürgen Prochnow as John Rabe.

Now veteran Ulrich Tukur takes that role, of Nazi Party member and Siemens China Co. manager Rabe, summoned back to anonymity in the Fatherland after almost thirty years, and all his married life, in China’s then-capital. Background to the “Rape of Nanking” and his decision to weather it out, is given through reenactments and archival material on Japan’s occupation of civil war-divided Shanghai and terrorizing of civilians while penetrating inland in pursuit of retreating Chinese troops.

Later reunited with the beloved Dora (Dagmar Manzel) whom he had tricked into fleeing to safety only to see her ship sunk, Rabe was himself stripped of Party membership and died poor and unrecognized in Berlin in 1950. Bereft of his wife during the film’s 1937-38, he has no fellows to confide in, and so there is voiceover as he pens the diary entries not published for another sixty years.

The childless bourgeois Rabes are Westerners, which translates into paternalism towards the workers and house staff for whom they do, however, truly care. Diabetic John is naïve about politics and about Siemens’ and Germany’s plans regarding China and soon-to-be Axis partner Japan. He actually expects a reply to his letter reporting the situation to the Fuhrer and thinks that his militaristic no-nonsense replacement Werner Fliess (Mathias Herrmann) is an aberration.

Under directive from his nephew Hirohito, commander Prince Asaka Yasuhiko (Teruyuki Kagawa) pursues a scorched-earth take-no-prisoners campaign to demoralize enemy soldiers and civilians alike. Few Imperial officers show disagreement, only one major daring to leak a warning, and during the two months surrounding Christmas 1937, two hundred thousand or more non-combatants and POWs were mutilated, shot, beheaded or burned alive, with an estimated twenty thousand women and girls raped.

John Rabe is not intended to indict our naïveté, or head-in-the-sand, that such tactics are common practice to the present day. From Moravia’s novel, Allied-sanctioned rape informs De Sica’s Two Women, but attitudes valued saving Europe over rescuing Asians, and the 1949 Geneva Conventions evolved from Nuremberg and not the less publicized Tokyo Tribunal.

Planning to get Dora out by herself, Rabe elects to stay on, because the previous day a group of remaining Caucasians had elected him chairman of the civilian Safety Zone proposed by Reich embassy diplomat Georg Rosen (Daniel Brühl, looking too young despite his thirty-two years and small moustache), who will himself turn out to have a family secret. Rabe’s nomination is railroaded through by Valérie Duprès (Anne Consigny), hopelessly and chastely attracted to him and determined to protect the resident students at her International Girls College and the Chinese soldiers hidden there.

Understaffed and –equipped hospital surgeon Dr. Robert Wilson (Steve Buscemi, woefully miscast) is a habitual cynic opposed to the man he insults as “the Nazi” and walks out after the vote. But he will return, and learn, as the committee half-dozen non-Chinese squabble and struggle to maintain order, discipline and supplies for the unexpected several hundred thousand refugees whom Rabe insists be allowed in.

The conquering army itches for an excuse to attack the Zone, and there are, of course, cinematic incidents like the doctor’s soldier son taken in in violation of the fragile agreement. Most developed of the threats to survival is school photographer Langshu (Zhang Jingchu), who takes forbidden documenting snapshots and steals out nights to feed her young brother and their hated father.

These touches, and even a romance that buds, are melodramatic distractions from the effective depiction of the Nanking Massacre and, really incidentally, of modern warfare as affecting civilian masses. For this is the story of title John Rabe, and of courage and integrity, and the phlegmatic Tukur does well by a quiet hero ignored for over half a century. 

(Released by Strand Releasing; not rated by MPAA.)

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