A Better Man, If Not a Better Film, Than Oskar Schindler
It will not surprise anyone who knows anything about the Rape of Nanking that this film did not find a Japanese distributor. It will also fail to surprise most of those people that the Rape of Nanking is not terribly well known in the United States. The average American seems to assume that World War II didn't start until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Slightly better educated Americans can tell you about things the Germans did in Europe in the '30s. And extremely well educated Americans actually know about what the Japanese did in China in the '30s. You almost have to be an expert to know about Ethiopia. 250,000 to 300,000 people were killed, and 200,000 to 250,000 people were protected within the International Safety Zone administered by a group of Westerners. Obviously, not all of them would have been killed. But equally obviously, they were safer there than they would have been in the rest of the city--or in much of anywhere else in China under Japanese control.
John Rabe (Ulrich Tukur) was the head of the Siemens plant in Nanking, China, for twenty years. He was called home in 1937; the Germans were going to close down the plant and the Japanese were going to take over the country. John and Dora (Dagmar Manzel) were to return to Berlin. On the night that John was giving his farewell speech to the Westerners in Nanking, the Japanese began attacking the city. John let his workers into the Siemens plant despite the orders of Werner Fließ (Mathias Herrmann), who is supposed to take over the plant until its dissolution. John Rabe, along with the rest of the Western community, agrees that they will create a zone within the city which they will declare under their protection. Rabe is named head of their organization, largely because he's German and therefore has diplomatic pull. His assistant in the group is American Dr. Robert Wilson (Steve Buscemi), who dislikes and distrusts him in no small part because of the whole Nazi thing.
John Rabe wasn't much like Oskar Schindler, for all they hold similar places in World War II history. For one thing, Oskar Schindler was in it for the quick buck. John Rabe had been working an ordinary job for an ordinary company for decades. He was in the wrong place at the right time. Oskar Schindler was following the fortunes of war. He knew there would be a fortune in it for him if he did things right. Saving people started as incidental for both men, but John Rabe immediately knew that it was what he needed to do, and Oskar Schindler had to force himself into it. Both men ended up living on the goodwill of those they'd saved--though John Rabe's support rather dwindled after the Communist takeover. But because John Rabe was back in Berlin during the War, the people he saved were not there to tell the Allies what he had done for them, and he was subject to certain treatments Oskar Schindler managed to avoid by surrounding himself with testifying Jews. John Rabe, who was probably already pretty disillusioned with the Nazi Party when they didn't do anything to help Nanking, still had to undergo "deNazification."
As for the film itself? Well, it's nice that Steve Buscemi gets to shine as a hero for once. However, I'm a little unclear on why the real-life Minnie Vautrin (whose own story is no little tragic) was replaced by the fictional Valérie Dupres (Anne Cosigny). It might be an attempt to balance out the nationalities of the members of the committee, but why do that? Aside from a single Danish member, everyone else was either American, British, or German. Cosigny is fine in the role, but that's hardly the point. It's also worth noting that, once again, we are looking at the saviours and not the saved. Langshu (Jingchu Zhang) is the highest-billed Asian character in the movie, and she doesn't get a heck of a lot of lines. She is also, frankly, kind of stupid. But it strikes me that hardly anyone in the movie really seems to understand the risks they're taking until people actually get shot for whatever-it-is they've done as a show of independence. You would think that would have had to happen a little less often before people would learn that lesson from others' experience.
So yeah. If you were in Japan, you didn't have the opportunity to see this. Textbooks are used in the schools that just ignore that the Rape of Nanking ever happened at all. And John Rabe's grandson is now working to try to get the Japanese to acknowledge the war crimes in part in the belief that acknowledging it would start the process of healing--for China and Japan both. I really do agree with him on that, as it happens. Unless you acknowledge where you were wrong, you can't ever move on. You can't ever be better than that. A lot of people don't want to let Germany get over the Nazi movement, but I think the German government and the German people have gone a long way toward trying to come to terms with their darker past. However, in some ways, it's actually easier for them. After all, a lot of the evils of Nazi Germany happened [i]in Germany[/i], whereas most of the evils of Japan from that same era happened in China or Korea. It's easier to ignore what you never had to see in the first place.