The year is 1937 and the place is Nanking, whose citizens are growing worried over the advance of the Japanese forces which have already invaded Shanghai. For the head of the Siemens plant there, industrialist John Rabe (Ulrich Tukur), life has been good for all the time he has spent prospering in the city, but now he recognises it would be wise to move back to Germany. Rabe is a proud German and staunch supporter of Adolf Hitler, but perhaps he has been away from the Fatherland for too long, as a representative of the Nazi Party arrives and castigates him for his lax attitude born of an easy life in China. But things are about to change dramatically...
Scenes you'd never thought you'd see: Steve Buscemi dancing around while belting out the song Hitler Has Only Got One Ball. But here it is in the John Rabe film, and summing up the curious approach to a problematic period of history, where it acknowledges that its hero was not such a great guy for most of his life as he endorsed the rise of fascism, yet managed to redeem himself spectacularly when the Japanese descended to carry out the notorious Rape of Nanking. For this reason, the work was often referred to as the German Schindler's List, even though it's as much a Chinese story as it belongs to that European country.
Nevertheless, it was the idea of German writer and director Florian Gallenberger to get this true life tale captured in a movie, and you can see why as it portrays a man who would otherwise have been a lesser cog in the Nazi machine rising to the occasion and saving far more lives than many of the leaders of his country could ever have done. Of course, in a film there are some events which have to be more loosely adapted than others, but what happens here is broadly true: Rabe, who had grown attached to the Chinese people he worked with, began to alter from a patronising view of his staff to seeing their true value as human beings once their lives were in awful danger.
The result was that he and a small group of other foreigners, including a consciousness-raising German-Jewish doctor (Daniel Brühl) who called Hitler "Shitler", set up a "Safety Zone" in the middle of Nanking where they promised the invading military no soldiers would go, thereby negating the motive for them to enter there and start executing the civilians. As it turned out, Rabe managed to save two hundred thousand ctiizens with his idea, making him a hero in China to this day, although in the West his name goes pretty much unknown. It was hoped that this would raise the profile of this war hero across the world, and to that end the film was a truly international co-production, with members of many countries drawn together to create an inspirational work.
Or that was the idea, and you can see by some scenes inspiration took hold of the filmmakers more than keeping a balance between the harrowing details and the notes of triumph, as too often those sequences seem miniseries corny, even if they are based in truth. What saves this from banality are two things, the genuine achievements of the subject, and the sincerity that Gallenberger and his team presented them with, so we see that, for example, although the diabetic Rabe was running out of insulin and heading for a coma, he still drew on his reserves of strength to prevail against the odds. If you start to think, wait a minute, were there no Chinese heroes of this conflict?, then we are provided with at least one, a heroine in fact, in Langshu (Jingchu Zhang), who emerges in the latter stages. The variety of nationalities across the production is cheering, and if it falls short of the true story's scope, it's not for want of trying and worth seeing as a reminder of the era it depicts. Music by Annette Focks.