Despite the emotive subject matter, pic is often too sluggish dramatically, and never knits together its stock Western characters into a satisfying whole.
A fine performance by Ulrich Tukur, as the eponymous German who managed to save over 200,000 Chinese during the 1937 Nanjing massacre by the Japanese army, is the main reason to see “John Rabe,” a big-budget, widescreen re-creation of part of the tragedy that still remains unacknowledged by Nipponese nationalists. However, despite the emotive subject matter, pic is often too sluggish dramatically, and never knits together its stock Western characters into a satisfying whole. With at least one more version coming down the pike (Mainland director Lu Chuan’s “Nanjing Nanjing”), “Rabe” looks unlikely to make much impression beyond German-speaking territories.
Compared with the emotional sweep of director Florian Gallenberger’s debut feature, Indian-set romancer “Shadows of Time,” “Rabe” comes over as a rather remote experience. With the one exception of a young Chinese photographer, played by rising Mainland star Zhang Jingchu (“The Road,” “Beast Stalker”), the story is told entirely from the perspective of Nanjing’s foreign residents and Japanese officers. The locals are largely cannon fodder or milling extras.
This kind of “foreign compound” approach wouldn’t matter so much if the script had dug deeper into the complexities of Rabe’s own position and psychology. Manager of Siemens’ China branch, and a resident of the country for 27 years, Rabe was not only a loyal company man but also a member of the Nazi Party who devoutly believed in the Fuehrer. His actions in Nanjing were driven by simple humanitarian concerns, shock at the appalling behavior of Germany’s Asian ally, and a love for the country and people among whom he’d worked so long.
But Gallenburger’s script — “inspired” by Rabe’s actual diaries, which only emerged in 1997, long after his death in 1950 — rarely gets under the skin of the main character’s conflicts. As such, the pic plays more like “55 Days in Nanjing” than a visceral biopic worthy of its subject.
Movie opens in late November 1937, with the Japanese, already in charge of Shanghai, advancing on Nanjing. To his private disappointment, Rabe (Tukur) has been told by visiting Nazi apparatchik Werner Fliess (Mathias Herrmann) that Siemens China Co. is to be closed and Rabe himself is required back in the Fatherland. But on the night of his farewell dinner, the Japanese air force bomb the city, and Rabe manages to protect his factory (and its workers) by sheltering them under a huge Nazi flag that can be seen from the air.
Various stock foreigners are also introduced in the early stages, including American doctor Robert Wilson (Steve Buscemi), who’s initially hostile to Rabe, and Valerie Dupres (Anne Consigny), French head of a local school for Chinese girls, among whom is wannabe photographer Langshu (Zhang). Both Buscemi, as the cynical American, and Consigny, as the devoted teacher, animate much of the early going as Rabe sits on the sidelines and becomes quietly concerned.
Finally, the foreigners have the idea of creating a Safety Zone, along the lines of one already established in Shanghai with the agreement of the Japanese, and use this, as well as the Siemens’ plant, as a refugee center. But as the wholesale massacre of Chinese by royal Nipponese officer Yasuhiko Asaka (Teruyuki Kagawa, creepily fanatical) escalates, Rabe & Co. finally have to resort to desperate measures.
Bearing a strong resemblance to the real Rabe, Tukur makes the most of the screenplay’s opportunities, though doesn’t dominate the action as much as he should. Buscemi and Consigny bring greater passion to their parts, but Zhang is pretty much confined to a token Chinese role. Daniel Bruehl, as a German-Jewish diplomat, seems stitched into the movie for convenience, while Dagmar Manzel, typically lively as Rabe’s loyal wife, Dora, is around too briefly.
Production design and costuming are of a high order, and visual effects, especially during the nightime air raid, ditto. Pic could easily lose 15 minutes to concentrate the drama.