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June 2010

City Of War: The Story Of John Rabe

cast: Ulrich Tukur, Steve Buscemi, Dagmar Manzel, Anne Cosigny, and Daniel Bruhl

writer and director: Florian Gallenberger

120 minutes (15) 2009
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Metrodome DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 3/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

City Of War: The Story Of John Rabe

You know how nearly every day of the year is now allotted to some random event or cause? National breast cancer awareness day, international talk like a pirate day... you know the type. Well, evidently, May 2010 is British misguiding DVD cover month as last month saw not only Momentum attempting to re-brand existential art house Viking movie Valhalla Rising as a Norse version of 300, it also heralds Metrodome's attempt to re-launch an award-winning German film about the Nanjing massacre as a remake of Pearl Harbour. Tasteful stuff, I am sure you will agree because nothing says 'macho war epic' like machine-gunning hundreds of thousands of starving civilians. Having said that, I can actually understand where the desire to 'sex up' City Of War: The Story Of John Rabe comes from as, despite lavish production values and an excellent cast, this really is a drearily monotonous piece of filmmaking.

The year is 1937 and John Rabe's (Ulrich Tukur) tenure as director of a German industrial concern on the outskirts of Nanjing is coming to an end. He has been in situ for over 20 years but despite a kind heart he is a man of his time... he is a member of the Nazi party and he treats his staff with utter contempt; raging at the Chinese for their child-like stupidity and boasting that he can tell a good 'chinaman' from a bad one at a glance. The end of Rabe's directorship also coincides with a Japanese push into mainland China and a Japanese army is currently sitting 70 kilometres outside the Chinese capital. A Japanese army now allied to Hitler's Germany.

Rightly concerned, Rabe is hoping to leave the capital as quickly as possible but his replacement turns out to be not a proper industrialist but a Nazi stooge intent upon winding down the factory and sacking the workers. This prospect seems to concern Rabe more intensely than the Japanese soldiers on his doorstep and so he delays his departure just long enough to find himself trapped in the city when the Japanese encircle it. Initially intent upon protecting his workers and factory, Rabe soon finds himself sucked into attempts by the ex-pat community to set up a de-militarised safety zone in the middle of Nanjing - a place where civilians can shelter from the Japanese attack on the understanding that it will contain no weapons or military personnel. The bulk of the film is devoted to Rabe's attempts to protect the zone in the face of growing intransigence from the Japanese high command who seem intent upon killing every last inhabitant of the Chinese capital.

City Of War is a film that falls between a number of different stools. The subject matter - exploitative German industrialist turns into do-gooder - suggests similarities with Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993), but whereas Schindler began the film as a sexist, racist exploitative war profiteer only to undergo a Damascene conversion, Rabe seems to have always been more interested in protecting his life's work than in making money or furthering the interests of the Reich. The distance between civil-minded local businessman and humanitarian being less than the distance between mercenary scumbag and humanitarian, City Of War simply does not work as a story of moral conversion. Rabe starts off as too much of a nice guy for that change to carry much weight. Thankfully, writer-director Florian Gallenberger seems to have been aware of this issue and so he decided to take a different route, one that is focussed more upon the massacre itself.

However, in order to focus upon the massacre itself, City Of War would need to either delve into the historical detail or sketch out the personalities involved but neither historical nor psychological context proves to be forthcoming. Sure, there are personalities but the script really fails to sell the tensions within them and the relationships between them. So, for example, we learn that Rabe does not get on with hospital administrator Dr Wilson (Steve Buscemi) but the totality of their dislike for each other proves to be that Wilson does not like Rabe because he is a Nazi and Rabe does not like Wilson because Wilson is horrid to him. Compelling human drama this ain't... A similar lack of depth also pervades Gallenberger's attempts to address the wider context of the Nanjing massacre but here the film develops an appalling case of tell-don't-show-itis as, instead of laying out the political context through dialogue, the film cuts to Rabe sitting at his desk writing a diary accompanied by actual footage of the massacre.

With no appetite for the human scale and no capacity for looking at the bigger picture, Gallenberger allows the film to slide into a procession of escalating atrocity vignettes as the Japanese (universally portrayed as stiff-backed martinets and etiquette-obsessed psychopaths) carry out one horrific act of brutality after another. It would be one thing to say that this makes for a narrative as dull as it is predictable but this is the least of the film's problems as after the third or fourth vignette, the hideousness of the Japanese crimes starts to take on an edge of dark comedy. You may weep for the wasted human potential when the Japanese machine-gun civilians and you may shake your head sadly when the Japanese take to raping schoolgirls but I defy you not to start smirking when the Japanese start having decapitation contests and plugging up the bomb damage in the high-street using dead bodies.

Events such as the Holocaust, the rise of the Khmer Rouge or the rape of Nanjing are too horrific for the human mind to fully grasp. We can look at numbers of dead, pictures of mutilations, and accounts of the horrific perversions that humanity is capable of at its worst, and still not fully grasp the sheer scale of man's inhumanity to man. This fact about human psychology means that it will always be a challenge to portray these kinds of events in fictionalised form. The problem is that it is so easy for an audience to stop empathising with the victims of these kinds of atrocities.

It is so easy for horror to turn to detachment and for detachment to turn to boredom and boredom to turn to absurdity. Spielberg intuitively understood this and it remains to his credit that he managed to force his audience to feel the suffering of the Jews right up until the end of the film. This is a challenge that was also successfully met by the Chinese director Lu Chuan, whose recent City Of Life And Death (2009) also deals with the Nanjing massacre. Gallenberger fails this challenge. He fails it as a scriptwriter and he fails it as a director. By focusing on the European and Japanese characters he misplaces the humanity of the suffering Chinese and despite focusing on the big names at the expense of the common man, he fails either to delve into the minds of the historical figures or explain the historical context of the massacre.

City Of War is a competently made and lavishly produced film with a good cast and some undeniably worthy subject matter. It is just that it is not a particularly interesting or moving film. It is, in a word, boring.

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