Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Good German: John Rabe

Not many Nazis have had institutes for international peace and reconciliation named after them, but John Rabe was an altogether remarkable man. Dubbed the “Good Nazi” and the “Schindler of Nanking,” it is estimated Rabe saved over 250,000 people from the Japanese “Rape of Nanking,” during which time he still considered himself loyal to the Fatherland and the Fuhrer. Though troubling to the other westerners in Nanking (Nanjing), his National Socialist party card makes him an effective chairman of the International Safety Zone in Florian Gallenberger’s biographical drama John Rabe (trailer here), opening this Friday in New York.

Rabe has a vision of China’s potential to become a future economic powerhouse. For nearly three decades he has lived there, building the developing country’s infrastructure and power plants. Having decided to mothball their Chinese operations, Siemens has recalled Rabe to Germany, where he will be kicked upstairs with a dead end promotion. However, before he can leave, the Japanese arrive.

In an ironic turn of events, the swastika becomes an emblem of sanctuary in Nanking, since as “faithful allies” the Japanese refrain from bombing the Siemens facility. As a result, Rabe safely shelters six hundred some individuals on company grounds. He will save thousands more as the chair of the international committee overseeing the strictly neutral safety zone, which the Japanese grudgingly observe largely due to Rabe’s affiliations.

The real life Rabe was initially denied de-Nazification by the allies and was largely dependent in his later years on the monthly stipend paid to him by the Chinese government in gratitude for his courageous actions. Still, he is certainly a multifaceted and often problematic figure, which Gallenberger forthrightly addresses. Rabe clearly loves the people of China, but his attitudes encompass more than a little paternalism as well. He is also hopeless na├»ve politically. Rabe did indeed write letters to Hitler entreating him to intervene with the Japanese on Nanking’s behalf. Of course, that worked out about as well as you might suspect.

Perfectly cast as Rabe, Ulrich Tukur is fast becoming the international face of German cinema, and with good reason. Outwardly the picture of sophistication, he also compellingly conveys Rabe’s earnestness and gradual disillusionment. As arguably the film’s most complex Chinese character (many of whom are essentially cookie-cutter victims), Zhang Jingchu also offers real screen charisma and touching vulnerability as Langshu, a photographer documenting the Rape of Nanking while trying to save her younger brother. Unfortunately, there is always the “hey, there’s Steve Buscemi” reaction whenever his bug-eyes appear in a film, but he is surprisingly credible here expressing the understandable frustration and contempt of Dr. Wilson, an American anti-Fascist who reluctantly agrees to serve as Rabe’s deputy.

Rabe’s story is definitely important and Gallenberger tells it quite well, drawing extensively from his subject’s diaries. Ultimately, John Rabe is a big, fully satisfying, morally unambiguous historical drama. If that means it is occasionally manipulative, then so be it. A large scale production featuring sensitive performances from Ulrich Tukur and Zhang Jingchu, John Rabe is highly recommended. It opens Friday (5/21) at the Quad.