John Rabe aka City of War: The Story of John Rabe (2009) The Good German of Nanjing or The Nanjing Massacre

Based on The Good German of Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe the movie City of War: The Story of John Rabe tells the true story of the German businessman John Rabe who saved the lives of 200’000 Chinese.

Rabe had been in Nanjing for 27 years when in 1937 Siemens told him that he was promoted and to return to Berlin immediately. What he didn’t know was that they had planned to close down the factory and stop building the giant dam that would have brought water to a huge number of Chinese people. Rabe realized that they were doing nothing less than destroying his life’s work.

The replacement they sent from Germany, Fleiss, a Nazi through and through, is an obnoxious and condescending idiot. During the evening before the Rabes are to go back to Berlin, the Japanese fly an air raid over Nanjing and open fire on the factory as well. Rabe opens the doors and lets the people find shelter inside the compound. The giant Nazi flag he was reluctant to put up, is fetched and hung above the inner yard to show the Japanese that they are flying over the territory of their ally.

A French schoolmistress, British diplomats and an American doctor (Steve Buscemi) manage to talk Rabe out of his plans to return to Germany and convince him to stay with them in Nanjing. They want to open a safety zone for the civilians and need him as their head. He accepts the deed and stays with them while his wife returns on her own.

Rabe  (very well-played by Ulrich Tukur) is a courageous man. The movie tells this atrocious story of the rape of Nanking in gruesome details. There is no Japanese act that isn’t horrible, as a matter of fact there is only one Japanese character that was a bit likable. This seems extremely biased. I have never seen a recent movie demonizing a whole people like this. The Nanjing massacre was an atrocity that is barely known today but that doesn’t make a whole nation evil.

I think you already got it, I have huge reservations regarding this movie. Another one stems from the fact that it won best picture. The movie interweaves original footage and movie material quite artfully and the picture is stunning. Glossy and very beautiful but that does a huge disservice to the topic. How can you show scenes of people being beheaded in such eerily beautiful colors, intense, shiny, fresh, esthetic? It’s really odd. Besides I didn’t really like Rabe. The way he treated his people was condescending, obedience was all that counted. He did change eventually but still I found that off-putting. “The Chinese are like small children?” he said at one point.

Rabe’s life ended very tragically. After having helped such a lot of people he went back to Germany in 1938 and, after the war, wasn’t denazified but lived isolated and impoverished until he died.

John Rabe is a German/French/Chinese co-production but there is also a Chinese movie with a similar title (City of Life and Death: Nanjing, Nanjing) about the same events. I think that is the movie I should have watched.

This was too esthetic for the topic and without the original footage it would have had no depth whatsoever. I think it’s unfair to use this type of original footage (really gruesome) to try to give meaning to an otherwise shallow picture.

8 thoughts on “John Rabe aka City of War: The Story of John Rabe (2009) The Good German of Nanjing or The Nanjing Massacre

  1. Guy Savage says:

    I watched this a while ago, and afterwards I went and read some stuff on the real incident. If anything, the film offered a really light treatment of the true incidents.

    Have you seen Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory? I was thinking about this film last night and I wanted to ask if you’d seen it. Douglas said that it was the film he was the proudest of. Director Stanley Kubrick.

  2. warmoviebuff says:

    This movie sounds like “Schindler’s List” in that Rabe sounds like Schindler, personality-wise. As to demonizing the Japanese people, it is never right to tar an entire people for what some do, but if ever it was appropriate this may be the case. The Japanese army reflected the attitude of the Japanese people. The Japanese looked down on the Chinese like the German people looked down on the Russians in WWII. I rarely see anyone complaining about Holocaust movies unjustly tarring the German people. Sometimes a people have to look in the mirror. I will say, to their credit, both the Japanese and the Germans changed for the better after looking in that mirror.

    • I was tempted to compare it to Schindler’s list but the similiarity stops with the topic. Schindler’s list is a good movie.
      I must say I have never seen a movie in which all the Germans were shown as blood-thirsty beasts. I agree with the “mirror”. Sometimes it is needed. I’m also aware how atrocious they behaved with the Chinese and we do not see Japanese civilians in the movie, only the army. The funny thing is that it leads you to think that the Japanese were worse than the Germans in WWII.

  3. warmoviebuff says:

    As far as treatment of civilians, it would be hard to top “the Rape of Nanjing” by any country at any time. Certainly overall the Nazis had more blood of civilians on their hands, but they had nothing equivalent to Nanjing that I can think of. However, the Japanese had no systematic plan of genocide in China.

    Another interesting comparison would be of treatment of prisoners of war. The Japanese treated American prisoners much worse than the Germans treated the Americans and British. However, the German treatment of Russians (Slavs) was worse than the Japanese.

    • maybe we should agree to say both countries committed atrocious crimes. I’m not sure if the Hutus didn’t treat the Tutsis worse or vice versa. They also deserve an atrocity price.
      What you say about the POW is interesting. Maybe if there is deep-rooted fear or hatred of a people it will break free in those circumstances. I’m sure someone wrote a psychlogical analysis of this. Would be interesting.

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