The world knows of Oskar Schindler’s heroics thanks, in part, to the stunning film of his life made by Steven Spielberg.
Let’s hope the same will soon be said of John Rabe, the German businessman who saved thousands of lives during the horrific rape of Nanking at the dawn of World War II.
“John Rabe” doesn’t have the flash that Spielberg brought to his Oscar-winning tale. But it’s rigorously well-crafted and featuers a beautifully modulated performance by Ulrich Tukur in the title role.
Playing a hero can be easy, but portraying a cold-hearted German during the Nazi regime takes something more — the chops to show a person’s soul rising to the surface.
Rabe hardly seems like a man with a big enough heart to save a fly, let alone thousands of Chinese men, women and children. The film opens with a thoroughly unflattering peek at this behavior.
He’s a German bureaucrat stationed in Nanking to oversee the construction of a dam. But Rabe is cruel to his underlings and dismissive of the Chinese workers breaking their backs to make the dam a reality. He only shows a flicker of humanity toward his doting wife, Dora (Dagmar Manzel).
Rabe’s arrogance comes in handy when his superiors tell him he’s being reassigned and the dam project will be scrapped. He starts fighting the power structure above him, all the while Japanese forces prepare to invade Nanking.
When the bombs start dropping, Rabe finds himself rushing to save the very same Chinese people he spent years dismissing. But how much can one man do against Japanese forces aligned with his own country’s Nazi party?
Fact-based stories can be preachy and predictable, but the mercurial life of Rabe sets this film apart. His transformation happens amidst the swirl of air raids, political gamesmanship and questions about his own country’s complicity in a cruel occupation.
It boasts some impressive war sequences for an art-house production, and the presence of Steve Buscemi as a dedicated doctor trying to treat the wave of dying patients allows American audiences to see the horrors through a countryman’s eyes. We’re even treated to a remarkably potent love story, one told with but a few assured strokes that leaves the final minutes of the movie with an added layer of beauty.
“John Rabe” feels a bit episodic in its final 45 minutes — it clocks in at 130 minutes — and might have run tighter without a few scenes that merely enforce the tragedy unfolding.
This isn’t the first time Rabe has been captured on screen. But past features like “Don’t Cry, Nanking” and “City of Life and Death” didn’t bring the man’s name to prominence like Spielberg’s film did for its hero. Which means “John Rabe” works as an engaging film and a valuable history lesson, one told with a passion and pragmatism that honors the real-life Rabe and those who suffered to help his cause.