Directed by Florian Gallenberger
Now that audiences have burned out on Hollywood's continuing glut of Holocaust films, the 1937 Nanjing Massacre seems to be making its way to the big screen with increasing regularity. In the wake of City of Life and Death's last-minute removal from Film Forum's spring lineup, Florian Gallenberger's John Rabe arrives as the latest addition to a group of Western-produced, Nanjing-themed films that include the star-studded documentary Nanking and the narrative feature The Children of Huang Shi. Last year's big winner at the German Film Awards, this sterile historical epic zooms in on one of the handful of memorable characters to have emerged in the historical accounts of the massacre, the eponymous Nazi hero (Ulrich Tukur) with a heart of gold.
Working in Nanjing as the director of China's Siemens branch, Rabe is unwilling to leave his adopted home, especially when the Japanese invasion places his Chinese acquaintances in jeopardy. Along with the head of a local girls' school (Anne Cosigny) and a conscience-ridden American doctor (a bumbling Steve Buscemi), he sets up the only safety zone in the city, an activity that confronts him with a series of impossible choices.
Managing somehow to look both glossy and cheap, this German-Chinese-French co-production is difficult to tell apart from the many other transnational projects that have become the trend in European prestige cinema of the past decade&emdash;works like Enemy at the Gates and Downfall whose aesthetically bland renderings of historical events seem to have been achieved by committee. War has been the theme of choice, but these tales of suffering are told without a hint of moral urgency or political risk, and are coated with a layer of nostalgia that may ultimately be more offensive than the histrionic extremes we've come to expect from the atrocity genre.
Expertly photographed and competently acted, John Rabe gives the impression that, even amid this recreation of chaos, the director has put everything in its right place. Each character stands at a single point on the moral spectrum of war and for the most part doesn't waver from it. Viewers would never guess from John Rabe that the massacre is still a contentious issue, one that continues to be denied by Japanese conservatives and serves as an instigator of contemporary Chinese nationalism. Gallenberger's approach is so evasive, particularly in the scenes that gently allude to the mass rape of Chinese women, that one is forced to wonder about the ethics of translating such brutality for a PG-13 viewership. By skirting around one of the crucial questions that has yet to be confronted in the memorialization of Rabe&emdash;that of his ironic endorsement of Hitler's regime&emdash;the film further reveals the cowardice beneath its smoothly composed surfaces.
Opens May 21