Arthouse: John Rabe, the Nazi who saved Chinese from Japanese atrocities in Nanjing

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 May, 2014, 11:24pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 May, 2014, 11:24pm

In 1993, Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List told the story of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist and Nazi party member credited with saving the lives of more than 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust. Sixteen years later, the man described as the Oskar Schindler of China was the subject of a German-Chinese-French co-production written and directed by German filmmaker Florian Gallenberger.

John Rabe was the director of operations at Siemens China in Nanking (aka Nanjing) when the Japanese attacked Shanghai in 1937.

Sent out east by his company more than 27 years previously, Rabe, who was also the head of the Nazi Party in Nanking, was due to be transferred back to Germany just a few days before the Imperial Japanese Army invaded the city and perpetuated the massacre known as the Rape of Nanking. But he ended up staying on to assume the role of chairman of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone and, in that time, showed that he was capable of compassion and decency, despite his Nazi affiliations.

Based on the Siemens executive's wartime diaries, John Rabe chronicles his efforts — along with a multinational group of foreigners, including an American doctor and the French head of a girl's college — to help protect, feed and save more than 200,000 Chinese by setting up a demilitarised zone along the lines of one that had been established in Shanghai.

German actor-musician Ulrich Tukur portrays Rabe as someone who, in peacetime, could be short-tempered, demanding, and critical (at one point pronouncing that certain Chinese workers are "idiots [who] are no use whatsoever"), but whose courage, generosity and principled humanity came to the fore after Nanking was transformed into a hell on earth by the Japanese.

Steve Buscemi, Daniel Brühl and Anne Consigny have prominent roles in the film as fellow members of the Nanking Safety Zone committee. In addition, mainland star Zhang Jingchu appears as Langshu, a schoolgirl who risks her life to take photos of victims of the atrocities and sneaks food to her family members unable to get into the safety zone.

The personal story of the German man described as "The Living Buddha of Nanking", and whose tombstone has a place of honour at the massacre memorial site in the southern Chinese city, deserves to be seen.


John Rabe, May 22, 9.50pm, Palace IFC, Central; May 24, 7.20pm, Broadway Cinematheque, Yau Ma Tei. Part of "French Shadows, All Eyes on China", a French May cinema programme