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    Florian Gallenberger’s John Rabe

    By Kirill Galetski | April 8, 2009

    Thirtysomething filmmaker Florian Gallenberger’s John Rabe, a biopic of a card carrying member of the Nazi party who saved around 250,000 lives in Nanking, China during the Sino-Japanese War, is a nuanced and skillfully crafted narrative. It features fine performances, multifaceted realism and dramatic ironies that make this particular true story truly worth telling. Despite having a story vaguely similar to Schindler’s List and the feel of a big-budget Hollywood wartime biopic, John Rabe manages to do without the solemnity saturation and maudlin sentimentality of the Spielberg film and has enough idiosyncrasies to make it a few cuts above many pedestrian period pieces.

    Nanking, now known as Nanjing, used to be the capital of China until 1949, and as such it was home to many foreign diplomatic missions and companies. The film follows the German manager with the unlikely name of John H. D. Rabe (Ulrich Tukur) as he supervises the last few days of his tenure as the head of Siemens China Company in December 1937. He banters with his wife Dora (Dagmar Manzel) and squares off on the finer points of being German with his sinister-looking, fanatical replacement Werner Fliess (Mathias Hermann). The ubiquitous Ulrich Tukur is towering in the role – a kindly, bald and bespectacled Otto who knows the meaning of service, selflessness and sacrifice, but also has a sense of humor.

    On the eve of his departure, the Japanese attack Nanking. At his farewell ball, shortly after receiving a medal from President Chang Kai-shek, all hell breaks loose as the Japanese air force bombs the city. Rabe rushes back to the Siemens compound, the Chinese employees and their families have already gathered at the gates, looking for help. Despite vehement protest from his successor Fliess, Rabe opens the gates and lets the refugees pour into the compound. This sets the stage for the set piece in the film that was the filmmakers’ motivation for making it – Rabe unfurls a huge Nazi flag and instructs the frightened Chinese to gather underneath it. The Japanese bombers react to their allies’ flag and avoid bombing the area.

    Rabe subsequently becomes involved with the creation and upkeep of a safety zone for civilians along with some of the foreigners that also stayed on Nanking – the physician Dr. Robert Wilson (Steve Buscemi), the French Dean of the International Girl’s College Valérie Duprès (Anne Cosigny), Jewish German diplomat Dr. Georg Rosen (Daniel Brühl) and Anglican missionary John Magee (Shaun Lawton). Some of the best episodes in the film feature Buscemi’s cantankerous character trading barbs with Rabe, whom he distrusts and despises at first due to Rabe’s Nazi affiliation.

    This not the first time this story has been told on film. The first effort was Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman’s U.S. 2007 docudrama Nanking, which featured original archival footage from the actual events and actors in costume – including Jürgen Prochnow as John Rabe – reading from respective letters and diaries. In a manner reminiscent of Elem Klimov’s Come and See, a film about the German invasion of Belarus, John Rabe also features archive footage intercut with its elaborate dramatization. The latter is just a minor aspect accentuating the film’s considerable realism, which also includes its use of languages. No compromises are made in the logic of language use are made – all of the characters speak their own language when they should, and speak English only when it would be called for in real life. A version of the film dubbed entirely in German has been produced for the film’s home market, but one gets the impression that it would not play as well as the international version. The viewer is also spared little in being shown the Japanese military’s cruelty; however, none of the violence is gratuitous.

    Uncompromising as it is, John Rabe almost did not get made. When Florian Gallenberger took his first trip to China to do research, he was informed that he would not be able to make the film in China, as the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party had decided that only one film would officially be allowed to be made on the subject, and a Chinese director had already been chosen to do the film.

    Fortunately, Gallenberger met associate producer Qiao Ling, who had very good relationships to leading members of the communist party. She joined the team at a very early stage and managed to help the filmmakers cut through the red tape.

    The film had its world premiere at the Berlinale on Saturday, February 10, on the huge screen of a new Berlinale venue, the Friedrichstadt Palast. Gallenberger, the producers, Qiao Ling and most of the cast were in attendance. After the screening, the film received a standing ovation from a visibly appreciative audience who had just seen a refreshingly positive story about a different kind of 1930s-era German.

    – Kirill Galetski

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