One of the few films so far this year that deserves to be called an epic. Great acting and superb sets and cinematography make this a great success
Breakthrough feature film director Florian Gallenberger is off to a great start with this 130-minute extravaganza featuring first rate performances and cinematography from an accomplished cast and crew. After his 2001 Oscar winning short “I want to be…” (Quiero ser) he had the street cred to grab some backing and he did exactly that.
Ulrich Tukur does a corker of a job playing John Rabe and has collected several German film awards for his work. This movie is based on the true story of Rabe, a corporate executive for German mega-corporation Siemens. Siemens was bringing world-class electrification and telephony to the Chinese port center of Nan King when the Japanese attacked in 1937 as a pre-emptive move towards WWII.
Steve Buscemi (“Fargo,” “Reservoir Dogs”) plays Dr. Robert Wilson, one of the western educated doctors caught in the middle of the thousands of brutal deaths and mutilations visited on the virtually defenseless men, women and children of Nan King. As Wilson and other quickly exhausted their medical supplies and the bodies were piled like cordwood they agreed to form a safe zone where international law could provide some protection. But this required sacrifices and compromises none of them was sure they could make.
Daniel Bruhl (lead actor in the spectacular indie production “Goodbye Lenin” and Private Zoller in “Inglourious basterds”) plays doctor Georg Rosen. Rosen and Rabe are depicted as two of the more calm and rational characters in the film whereas the Buscemi character, Robert Wilson, is the Hotheaded American who wants action, and fast. Perfect casting on all counts, another great role for Buscemi as he expands the scope of his work.
“John Rabe” is anti-war film and at the same time a film exalting the heroism of the common person. The horror of war is never more profound than at the beginning of a conflict, especially in the context of a surprise attack. Pearl Harbor was like that and Nan King was as well. Although both were surprise attacks, Nan King was unparalleled in the ferocity of the suffering directed to civilians. Ridiculously outnumbered, the Japanese had to strike terror into the hearts of the Chinese population in order to control the sprawling nation. They would never control any more than a fraction of the country so they felt they had to make a big impression in a short time.
The western expatriates caught in this had two reactions. The first reaction was to get out while they were still alive. The second reaction was to stay with the suffering population and relieve what suffering they could. Not only are John Rabe and his fellow medical professionals heroes for staying behind and helping, they somehow managed to bring Yankee ingenuity to bear on the situation where few solutions presented themselves. Rather than being a film of how westerners won the war with bombs it is a film of how westerners won the hearts and minds of ordinary people when the rest of the world turned their backs and walked away.
The sets and costumes in this film stir the imagination. This was a time when western technology was just being integrated into traditional Chinese life and the rickety warehouses and crude structures that hold the state-of-the-art power generation and communication apparatus truly inspire the imagination. The action photography complete with exact reproductions of the feared Japanese Zero aircraft are as exciting as they are fearsome. A little bit of computer graphics goes a long way in a film like this and the sinking of the passenger ship by enraged Japanese bombers as it leaves the dock is one the best, and saddest, war scenes ever films.
This is a work that monumentally underscores the heartbreak and hopelessness of war with some of the best cast and crew work to be seen this year.
Directed and Written by: Florian Gallenberger
Starring: Ulrich Tukur, Steve Buscemi, Anne Consigny, Dagmar Manzel and Daniel Brühl
Release: May 21, 2010
MPAA: Not Rated
Runtime: 130 minutes
Country: France / China / Germany
Language: Cantonese / Mandarin / German / Japanese / English / Ukrainian