Friday, May 21, 2010

Florian Gallenberger's JOHN RABE: the real-life, World War II, good German

Old-fashioned epics in the biography/
history mode are so rare these days that a good one like the recent German film JOHN RABE (pronounced Rah-buh) is reason enough to send up an Annunciation flare. Written and directed by Florian Gallenberger (shown below, clutching his "Oscar" for Quiero Ser [I Want to Be], which won Best Short Film-Live Action back in 2001), the movie tells a tale (perhaps not the tale, but close enough for jazz) of a real-life German businessman who had the moral strength and courage, despite his being a huge Hitler-lover, to stand up for Chinese refuges during the slaughter that has come to be known as The Rape of Nanking.

If you're an inveterate movie-goer, you will probably already know about Herr Rabe from other recent films: Chuan Lu's Nanjing! Nanjing! (City of Life and Death) and the 2007 semi-documentary Nanking.  Here, however, we see a much fuller Rabe and understand better how important was his work for the safety of the Chinese people trapped in the city when the Japanese took it over in 1937.  The movie, I believe, telescopes time and and events somewhat (the entire film takes in but two months at the end of that year), but the effect only captures our attention that much more, pulling us strongly into the narrative.

The choice of events that Gallenberger shows us cements the time, place and importance of what is going on so absolutely in our psyches that I suspect anyone who views the film will always remember what happened here. And though the filmmaker sees to it that, yes, there are both good and bad Germans and Japanese shown, it is more than clear in this case that the Japanese were responsible for mass slaughter and atrocities for which that coun-
try, to this day, has yet to declare and/or take its full responsi-
bility  (Japan, meet Turkey!)  As genocidal as were the Nazi toward the Jews, this film makes it clear that the Japanese were equally so toward the Chinese.  (It's little wonder the film proved so popular in Germany: At last an entire -- and almost entirely successful -- movie devoted to a good German during WWII!)

Ironically, it was because of the close ties between Japan and Germany that Rabe, as a German, could manage to exercise some control and protection over, first, the Chinese workers in the Siemens factory in Nanking that he had charge over, and later up to 200,000 refugees. In the first attack we see in the film, it is by unfurling a huge Nazi flag (above), under which the workers gather, that Rabe is able to save their lives during an aerial bombing.

Gallenberger uses occasional newsreel footage along with his filmed narrative -- the coupling works quite well -- and his art director and set designers have done a yeoman job of creating the period of the late 1930s.  Occasionally, a scene will smack of "commerce."  As exciting as is the chase of the suddenly-Japanese-uniformed Chinese girl Langyu (played by the lovely Jingchu Zhang, above, right) into her girl's dormitory, when the commanding officer orders all the girls to strip naked, you can practically hear the voice of a producer whispering, "Find a way to work in some nudity, and I'll bankroll your movie."

Ditto the almost love story between Langyu and her young German Jew (Daniel Brühl, doing penance for his nasty Nazi of Inglorious Basterds).  Yet so involved do we become with these characters, all of whom are very well acted, I suspect you'll allow the events and performances to carry you along.  Among the fine cast, it's a partic-
ular pleasure to see Steve Buscemi (above, right) play a relatively buttoned-down role as an American physician practicing in Nanking, as well as the fine French actress Anne Consigny (above, left), as one of the strongest forces for good in this imperiled city, while Dagmar Manzel (below, left) is the steadfast and loving Dora Rabe.

In the role of Rabe himself, Gallenberger was lucky to have enticed the man who may be Germany's finest actor working today: Ulrich Tukur (shown above, right, and below).  You've seen him recently in roles quite varied -- from The White Ribbon to Séraphine and North Face. As Rabe, he is altogether different: quiet, self-effacing and only slowly rising to the challenge at hand.  What a marvelous actor this fellow is; he has you following his smallest change of thought and feeling without ever striking a false note.  If the rest of the cast and the story itself were not so commanding, Herr Tukur alone would make this film a must-see.

John Rabe, via Strand Releasing,  begins its theatrical run today, May 21, in New York City, at the Quad Cinema, on Long Island at the Malverne Cinema, and in Queens at the Kew Gardens Cinema. On June 4, the film will open in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall 3, the Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino and the Regal Edwards Westpark 8 in Irvine.

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