Film captures heroism

Published 8:41 am Friday, June 8, 2012

by Chuck Lilley

Rating: 3½ thumbs up

Most of us are never confronted with circumstances in which risking our own life to save others is presented. Until tested we can only ponder if we would rise to the occasion, or would “our conscience make cowards of us all”?

The film “John Rabe” (pronounced RAH-bay) focuses on such a moral dilemma.

In a work based on Rabe’s own meticulous diaries, filmmaker Florian Gallenberger unveils a powerful story of uncommon courage by a common man during one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century, the mass murder of more than 200,000 Chinese civilians by Japanese soldiers during the 1937-38 occupation of Nanking (now Nanjing).

While Rabe’s heroism saved the lives of hundreds of thousands, his actions went largely forgotten until Iris Chang’s best-selling novel, “The Rape of Nanking,” was published in 1997.

The film opens with Rabe, as a businessman and member of the Nazi Party, being called back to Berlin from Nanking after a 30-year career with Siemens, a German engineering conglomerate. Ironically his expatriate status has shielded Rabe from the cruelty and ruthlessness that defined Hitler’s rise to power, and feeds a naiveté toward the German leader’s inhumane treatment of Jews.

The 2010 film is adapted mostly from the meticulous diaries of Rabe, but it also relies upon the letters of American physician Robert Wilson (efficiently played by Steve Buscemi of “Fargo” fame). Because he is a diabetic and insulin supplies are dwindling, Rabe crosses Wilson’s path. Outraged over the torture, rape and murder of the innocent, both men ignore several chances to flee in safety, and opt to negotiate a downtown Nanking “safety zone” refuge for the besieged citizen.

Central to the story is actor Ulrich Tukur in the role of John Rabe. His nuanced performance allows the audience to slowly empathize with Rabe’s humanity, from his initial disbelief and reluctance at involvement, to ultimately his heroic decisiveness in organizing and leading others into action.

However, other than Buscemi, there is little character development from the other roles; all of the Japanese and German officers are depicted as stereotypical villains. The director has put the success of the film in the hands of the capable Tukur.

Many of the scenes of the atrocities (beheadings, executions, rapes) are explicit but serve to effectively convey the unfolding horror that even today the Japanese government resists acknowledging.

A stark, accurate reminder of the brutality of war and the extraordinary sacrifices individuals will make for the sake of others amidst inhuman chaos, “John Rabe” can be streamed online through Netflix or ordered from Amazon.

CHUCK LILLEY of Franklin is a retired corporate manager. His email address is