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John Rabe Opens Staller Center’s Fall Film Series

Photo Credit: Staller Center

Go to Japan and try to find the Nanjing Massacre in a textbook and you’ll find yourself squinting so hard that you’ll be better off not looking in the first place. However, try looking for the Nanjing massacre in John Rabe, the film kicked that off this year’s film series at the Staller Center, and you’ll want to shut your eyes to it’s heart wrenching story.

John Rabe is like the stylistic Chinese version of Schindler’s List. It has that “kind Nazi” seen in Schindler’s List, but instead of Liam Neeson saving Jewish prisoners from the Nazis, it has John Rabe, played by Ulrich Tukur, saving Chinese civilians literally beneath the Nazi flag from the Japanese army.

John Rabe is a biopic about a Nazi businessman which saved hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians during the Nanjing massacre by helping to create and maintain a safety zone. The film is based on Rabe’s personal diaries during that time, and, thus, most of the main characters portrayed in the film are based on real people.

The acting in John Rabe is stunning. Tukur does a wonderful job as John Rabe and Steve Buscemi is a pleasure to watch on screen. Not only that but Daniel Brühl also appears with his baby face looks to stir some drama and star in a cliché romance (If you’ve seen Inglourious Basterds you may remember him as Private Fredrick Zoller—the Nazi war hero who killed the cinema owner played by Mélanie Laurent).

While the acting is a pleasure to see, what is even more pleasing to the eyes is the cinematography by Jürgen Jürges. The shallow focus shots complement the characters, perhaps hinting at their shallow, two dimensional personalities, while the deep focus shots showcase the talent of the production designer, Juhua Tu. Tu’s sets in John Rabe are absolutely breathtaking in combination with Lisy Christl’s costume designs. The three artists and actors work together in John Rabe in conjunction with the direction of Florian Gallenberger to paint a beautiful yet devastating image of Nanjing, from the ornate scene of an international diplomatic social celebration to the piles of rubble after the Battle of Nanjing that are decorated with fresh and rotting Chinese corpses.

John Rabe isn’t your average film and definitely not a Disney movie that will make you feel all good and fuzzy inside. John Rabe attempts to cover the serious subject of the Nanjing Massacre, and, thus, the viewer is pelted by the horrors that occurred. If you are sensitive, you may cry. If you are compassionate, you may be disgusted by the human rights abuses shown in John Rabe that are sadly not fictional. However, John Rabe will not drown you with sadness even if it does get close. Cliché plot devices and romantic developments provide relief to the constant devastation and hopelessness in the film, not to forget a noteworthy comedic relief scene in which Buscemi and Tukur sing drunkenly about Hitler’s balls or lack thereof.

While John Rabe does a decent job in showing the devastation of the Nanjing Massacre, the film is subdued by clichés and corny romantic subplots. Despite the actors’ brilliant portrayals of their respective characters, the characters are still undoubtedly flat. There is that absolutely evil Japanese officer and the woman that stubbornly cares too much for the lives of others. However, John Rabe does bring up the common questions of whether there can be a “good Nazi,” the value of life and whether lives can be compared or taken. Regardless, if you want to taste some prime cinematic talent with a miniature history lesson on the Nanjing Massacre, John Rabe is a good film that is worth seeing.

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