REVIEW: DVD Release: City Of War: The Story Of John Rabe

Film: City Of War: The Story Of John Rabe
Release date: 3rd May 2010
Certificate: 15
Running time: 120 mins
Director: Florian Gallenberger
Starring: Steve Buscemi, Daniel Bruhl, Ulrich Tukur
Genre: War/Drama
Studio: Metrodome
Format: DVD
Country: Germany/France/China

Florian Gallenberger's film follows the actions of a conscientious Nazi Party member who uses his political pull to provide shelter to members of a race being subjected to the brutalities of genocide. No, this is not the story of Oskar Schindler but that of John Rabe - the German businessman who used his Nazi influence to help provide a sanctuary for the civilians of Nanking throughout Japan's invasion of China.

John Rabe (Ulrich Tukur), a German businessman and member of Hitler's Nazi Party, is caught in a moral conflict when the Chinese employees of the Nanking-based factory he runs are targeted and killed in Japan's ruthless and barbaric invasion of China.

Unable to stand for the ill treatment inflicted by the Japanese troops, Rabe helps in the establishment of a Safety Zone designated and maintained by his fellow business colleagues, as well as missionary workers. It is here that Rabe fights to provide security for the Chinese civilians against the marauding invaders, while battling ill health and trying to remain loyal to the political party he so blindly believes in...

It is no great surprise that much of City Of War: The Story Of John Rabe evokes memories of Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winning Schindler's List, so similar are the stories of heroism perpetrated by both Rabe and his fellow businessman, Oskar Schindler. It is only unfortunate for director Gallenberger that the film, like the legacy of the man on whom it is based, will more than likely be left dwelling in the shadow of its more high-profile contemporary.

While being technically very good, and with some strong performances, the film simply remains too reliant on the opportunistic implementation of tried-and-tested, kitschy Hollywood gimmicks and sequences which often are not only likely fabrications imbedded into the case's reality - for instance, in no records is a wife of Rabe acknowledged to be of significance to his story in Nanking - but are also almost parasitical to the tale's main point of importance: the treatment suffered by the Chinese at the hands of the invading Japanese soldiers.

While Schindler's List is hardly going to be the complete and utterly faithful reconstruction of Schindler's story – and, of course, there is something to be said for creative writing instructor Robert McKee's claim that film is simply a metaphor for real life - the film never succumbs to allowing trifling subplots to dilute the more emotive storyline. Though there are periods where Schindler spends time self-reflecting, his emotional processes are influenced always by the trials endured by the Jews, his opinion of them and the way that he can make a difference for their benefit. Rabe, although conscious of the Chinese, never quite seems fully devoted when he has more direct, personal concerns, such as a drama with his fictitious wife and a barely consequential medical condition to contend with.

Gallenberger never goes so far as to develop any Chinese characters worthy of making a significant emotional contribution to the film, and it is this neglect that goes a distance to undermining the whole affair. The only Chinese character explored is that of Jingchu Zhang, who plays a schoolgirl serving as little more than a propagator of nuisance and a romantic interest for one of the Safety Zone committee members in an aimless subplot that further makes incidental the slaughter of the thousands which are portrayed throughout as little more than needy, huddled cattle awaiting their cull. Her contribution does nothing to sate the film's need for an emotional representative on behalf of the Chinese, whose pain far outweighs that of their eventual saviours.

Instead, this is a study of how the Nanking massacre affects the Western characters, with subplots engineered to bind and heighten the characters' emotional stakes. And as a film that cares more to study the Westerners than study the mindset of the real victims, it at least brings out of its main actors a couple of compelling performances, with lead Ulrich Tukur (The White Ribbon) first in line for commendation for his effective portrayal of Rabe. Tukur paints him as a sensitive gentleman in possession of a solid moralistic core, but hindered by a crippling naivety that sustains, for the most part, his poignant faith in the corrupt Nazi regime.

The character of Steve Buscemi - one of the chief hopes for the film's acknowledgement by English-speaking audiences - is capable enough but is restricted to spending his time saying how awful things are where more effective imagery could have done the job. The other supporting actors are, for the most part, par.

The soundtrack is stirringly powerful throughout, while the cinematography, complemented by archive footage from the killings, does a good job of painting a landscape so wracked with pain that you wish sometimes it was explored in more depth. At one point, Rabe peeks through a hole in a fence to get an obscured glimpse of the decapitation of one of his workers. A film more interested in the Chinese perspective - while remaining sensitive enough not to allow it to develop into a voyeuristic gore fest - might have dared to show it more explicitly and allowed the gravity of such individual atrocities to be of at least equal emotional importance as the fanciful, distracting story strands involving the main characters.

The neglect of the film to embrace the full emotional, psychological and graphic horror of "The Rape of Nanking", among one or two other qualms, leaves it a disappointingly forgettable depiction of one of the most important and profoundly moving stories to emerge from the Second World War.

One of the most cold-blooded massacres in human history, but one that could have benefitted from more often venturing outside of the main protagonist’s and his friends' personal troubles to bear witness to the heinous crimes perpetrated on the Chinese public. DS

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