Review: John Rabe

“You may be a good doctor and you may know something about telephones, but neither of you knows anything about diplomacy!”

Florian Gallenberger’s historical drama John Rabe takes the 1937 attack on Nanking, China by invading Japanese forces (and the horrific atrocities that ensued), and filters it through the noble actions of a handful of foreign characters, including the titular German industrialist, an American doctor and a Jewish-born, German diplomat. That it excels as a production but not as a story says a lot more about the director’s lack of style and the script’s focus than the people involved in it.  But the film also comes to U.S. theaters at an awkward time, following the successful festival run of Chuan Lu’s similarly-themed docudrama City of Life and Death, a stunning film with which Rabe cannot contend.  City of Life and Death is best-of material;  John Rabe is merely a solid film. Such comparisons are unfortunate, but inevitable.

When we meet Rabe (played here by The White Ribbon co-star Ulrich Tukur) he seems dismissive of the Chinese (“They’re like children.”) though he has spent 27 years in the country.  As plant manager for the Chinese branch of Siemens, Rabe has two days left before being returned to Berlin where he fears he will be of less importance as one of many members of upper management. But just before he toasts the crowd at a going away celebration, Japanese aircraft begin bombing the city. It soon becomes necessary for the foreigners to create an “International Safety Zone” where innocents can hold up without fear of attack.

But the Japanese, led by Prince Yasuhiko Asaka (Teruyuki Kagawa, as crisply effective here as he was in Tokyo Sonata), are not ones to be second-guessed or told how to run a massacre.  Standing policy is to leave no prisoners, kill anyone remotely connected with the hiding of Chinese soldiers, and in the case of the women of Nanking, rape is acceptable treatment. The Japanese atrocities are not so acutely or comprehensively examined here as they were in City of Life and Death; but it seems the focus was never the conflict as much as the counter-scheming of the outsiders to protect Chinese civilians and themselves, in particular Rabe’s turn from oblivious businessman to somewhat-begrudging savior.

Comparisons could arguably be made to Schindler’s List, but it seems clear that while Rabe’s rather forced efforts kept a finite group of Chinese workers out of harm’s way for a short time, he is not the most sympathetic protagonist to choose to center a film around. More likeable is Steve Buscemi’s Dr. Robert Wilson, an American who appears to be in charge at Nanking’s Goulou Hospital, where supplies and readiness for the impending attack are severely lacking.

Wilson is a secondary character, but a critical one;  his is the only voice that seems intent on reminding us that, within the confines of this story, our money is essentially on Hitler (as Germany’s efforts to side with the Japanese make for a good defense against aerial bombings and mass executions). And it’s very satisfying to see Buscemi in a straight dramatic role. Like Jeff Goldblum in last year’s Adam Resurrected, Buscemi gets a dark, un-ironic tale to exist in;  both actors are probably better known for humorous roles, and these off-center projects make them stand out. Buscemi also gets one of the few light notes in the film, as he and Tukur share a drunken moment together that begins seriously and ends with a song that Hitler and his staff would likely find objectionable.

Another standout is Daniel Bruhl (Inglourious Basterds) as Dr. George Rosen, a German who worked in the Shanghai Embassy and promotes the initial concept of the safety zone.  Rosen is quiet and intelligent, with years of experience as a diplomatic councilor, but is forced to take a “secretary” position in the newly-formed safety council despite being one of the few who understands how to deal with high-ranking and dangerous opponents in a civil manner. Rabe and Wilson have no qualms about verbally treading on the delicacies of wartime negotiations, which understandably frustrates Rosen.

Despite an uneven emotional tone and frequently clumsy scenes of arguments between the non-Chinese council members, John Rabe‘s biggest crime may be its reliance on mawkish scenes taken straight from a handbook on tearjerker and feel-good moments in cinema. But overall it is a great looking film, its excellent set design and costumes providing genuine appeal that the film misses tonally. That some of the CGI rings false is not damning; this simply isn’t the kind of film that is driven by special effects.

John Rabe may leave you pausing to assess its dramatic inefficiencies, but there is still enough there to recommend a viewing on the strengths of the production and some of the acting.  But for a tale so powerfully told elsewhere, one wishes the script’s dramatic core could have been more impacting.

[John Rabe opens today at the Angelika Dallas.]