Review: City of War: The Story of John Rabe

Director: Florian Gallenberger
Screenplay: Florian Gallenberger
Producers: Benjamin Herrmann, Mischa Hofmann & Jan Mojto
Starring: Ulrich Tukur, Daniel Brühl, Steve Buscemi, Anne Consigny, Dagmar Manzel
Year: 2009
Country: France, China, Germany
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 129 min

City of War: The Story of John Rabe is a French, Chinese and German co-production that tells the story of the ‘Rape of Nanking’ between 1937-38 and how German businessman John Rabe helped save hundreds of thousands of Nanking residents from the fate that befell hundreds of thousands of others. It’s a shameful period in Japanese history that some still deny ever happened, despite all the evidence and eventual acknowledgement by the government several decades later. City of War is essentially a Chinese version of Schindler’s List, but nonetheless presents a story well worth telling and does a fairly decent job even if it lacks some of the cinematic poetry of Spielberg’s much loved film. Out this month in the UK is City of Life and Death too that tackles the same subject matter though. From the reviews I’ve seen of that it sounds like a more harrowing experience focusing on the atrocities themselves and not on John Rabe and those trying to put a stop to them. Without seeing it I can’t recommend one over the other, but my instincts tell me that City of Life and Death will be the more powerful film. I’ll certainly try and track it down to compare the two.

Anyway, City of War as I mentioned, sets it’s sights largely on the story of John Rabe and how he came from being a hard working Nazi-party supporting businessman to the ‘saviour’ of Nanking. Expecting a promotion and relocation from his Siemens factory in the city, Rabe (Ulrich Tukur) instead is set to have everything taken away from him following a visit from a high ranking Nazi officer. During this time however the Japanese launch an aerial attack on Nanking, prompting Rabe to use a large Swastika flag to protect his factory workers from being bombed (the Nazis were allied with the Japanese of course). This act of kindness is taken to heart by the residents and Rabe is (almost unwillingly) appointed the job of establishing a safety zone in the city with help from a cynical American doctor (Steve Buscemi), a German academic (Inglourious Basterds’ Daniel Brühl) and a French college dean (Anne Consigny).

City of War is a classy, glossy drama that is well mounted and commendable but offers little extra to make it truly memorable. Tukur delivers a strong lead performance, juggling languages with ease along with most of the cast. It sounds like an odd recommendation, but I’ve watched a couple of films recently where actors fall way out of their comfort zones when speaking a foreign language. This film starts largely in German but is almost totally in English for the latter two thirds with a smattering of Chinese and Japanese thrown in for good measure yet always looks and sounds convincing. A couple of performers ham it up a little, I didn’t care much for Consigny in particular, but generally this is a film where the actors keep a fairly standard script from getting too tedious. I also enjoyed seeing Steve Buscemi in a fairly unusual role (for him at least), it’s been a while since I’ve seen him get anything meaty to work with. It’s not his finest performance, but it made me miss his glory ‘indie’ days.

As I mentioned in my introduction, City of War does feel a little watered down though. It’s not without it’s disturbing scenes, but after reading up on the massacre on the net I felt it hardly scratched the surface of some of the horrific things that were going on at the time. The staggering number of women that were reportedly raped in the siege is sickening and the film doesn’t quite get across the extent to which this was happening. Neither does it go into the torture and mutilations that were occurring by the thousands. Instead the film takes more of a heart-warming approach, showing how much of a difference one man can make in the face of such hardships. The beheading of one group of prisoners, the attempted rape of a young girl and the discovery of hundreds of bodies dumped in a harbour do stick in the mind though and the film certainly doesn’t hide from the fact that this was a terrible act. I just felt like a little too much of the film felt sappy and heavy handed when it could have been devastatingly powerful.

It’s not a bad film by any means though and there is much to take from it. There is some strong imagery and a few nice touches throughout. It isn’t afraid to add some subtle humour to proceedings either particularly in an early scene where the National Socialist German Workers’ Party are shown to be sharing their premises with an English group. I also thought having Rabe write to Hitler himself asking for help in the humanitarian effort was a nice touch. What lets the film down though is a tendency to get too glossy and sentimental when it should be hard hitting and harrowing.

City of War: The Story of John Rabe is released on DVD in the UK on 3rd May by Metrodome.