John Rabe (film)

John Rabe (film)
John Rabe
Directed by Florian Gallenberger
Produced by Benjamin Herrmann
Mischa Hofmann
Jan Mojto
Written by Florian Gallenberger
Starring Ulrich Tukur
Daniel Brühl
Steve Buscemi
Anne Consigny
Jingchu Zhang
Music by Annette Focks
Cinematography Jürgen Jürges
Editing by Hansjörg Weißbrich
Release date(s) Germany:
2 April 2009
27 April 2011
Running time 134 mins
Country Germany
Language Mandarin Chinese
Budget €15,151,200

John Rabe (released in the UK as City of War: The Story of John Rabe[1]) is a 2009 German-Chinese-French biopictorial film directed by Florian Gallenberger and starring Ulrich Tukur, Daniel Brühl and Steve Buscemi.

It focuses upon the experiences of John Rabe, a German businessman who used his Nazi party membership to construct a Safety Zone in Nanking, similar to the one in Shanghai, and save over 200,000 Chinese from the Nanking massacre, which was being committed by the invading Imperial Japanese Army after the 1937 Battle of Nanking. Based upon Rabe's wartime diaries, shooting for the film commenced in 2007,[2] and it premiered at the 59th Berlin Film Festival on 7 February 2009.

The film picked up over seven German Film Awards nominations, including Best Film, Best Director (Gallenberger), Best Actor (Tukur) and Best Supporting Actor (for Buscemi, one of the few times that a Lola nomination has been given to a non-German citizen – Buscemi is American). It won for Best Film, Best Actor, Best Production Design and Best Costume Design. Lead actor Ulrich Tukur also won the 2009 Bavarian Film Awards for Best Actor.



Fall-Winter 1937. For nearly thirty years, German businessman John Rabe and his wife Dora have resided in Nanking, the Chinese capital of that time. He is the director of the Siemens subsidiary there. The thought of transferring management to his successor Fließ and returning to Berlin is a substantial professional setback for him. He has grown fond of the country and he knows he is a man of influence there; in the Berlin headquarters he would be just be one of several hundred at a desk with limited authority. During the farewell ball in his honor, Nanking is bombarded by planes of the Japanese forces, which have just conquered Shanghai. Panic breaks out and Rabe has the company gates opened to bring the families of his workers into safety. In a key scene, the people draw a large Nazi flag over their heads; stopping the fighter-bombers from causing more harm. (Germany was in the process of shifting its alliance from China to Japan in those years.)

While the fires are being put out the next morning and the damages are inspected, the remaining foreigners in the city discuss what they can do in the face of the threat. Dr. Rosen, a German Embassy Attache of partly Jewish descent with reduced chances of promotion, reports about Shanghai where a safety zone was established for civilians, suggesting as similar zone, warmly supported by his superior, Ambassador Trautmann. Valérie Dupres, director of the International Girls College, is enthused and nominates John Rabe, as a German in a way an "ally" of the Japanese, as the chairman of the international committee. This meets though with the initial reluctance of Dr. Robert O. Wilson, US head doctor of a local hospital, who harbors idiological antipathy towards the German "Nazi" Rabe. Rabe actually wanted to start his homebound journey the next day. However, just as he and Dora are about to board a passenger liner packed with the fleeing diplomatic corps, she looks into his eyes and sees that he intends to stay after all. Rabe then witnesses an aerial attack on the ship as it sails out, severely damaging it and apparently killing passengers including his wife. He becomes greatly depressed, but then dives into the task of organizing a safety zone.

Meanwhile, Japanese forces have captured many National Revolutionary Army soldiers during a battle outside of Nanking. Prince Yasuhiko Asaka orders the prisoners to be massacred. A young major cautiously voices his apprehension about this crime, but is reprimanded. Nanking is then brutally overrun. John Rabe and the international committee however manage to have the Nanking Safety Zone recognized by the Japanese authorities. Hundreds of thousands seek refuge; more than anticipated and overstretching the committee's resources. Chinese soldiers are officially not permitted in. When a wounded soldier is carried in, as an exception because he is the son of one of the doctors, Dr. Wilson reluctantly accepts this. However, a Japanese squad searches him out and shoots him along with some hospital staff, much to the horror of Dr. Wilson.

Further atrocities follow: When a Japanese officer wants to march out a troupe of tied-together Chinese POWs from the Girls College, he requests to take along 20 of the girls as well. Mmme Dupres stoutly refuses and as a consequence hears the prisoners being machine-gunned. Langshu, one of the girls from the college, is an avid photographer, documenting the atrocities. To the dismay of Mme Dupres, she often sneaks off campus, also to supply food to her family. One night, she is caught by soldiers in her father's house. They shoot him and attempt to rape her, but her little brother shoots the soldiers to save her. After burying the father, the two attempt to sneak back to the security zone – Langshu disguised in one of the Japanese's uniform. She is detected, but just barely manages to flee and find refuge in her dorm.

While Rabe is negotiating with the Japanese, his waiting driver and a Japanese officer have a misunderstanding outside. Upon return, the driver has been dragged off. Rabe is too late to save his driver from having his head cut off, which is depicted as part of the infamous killing contest between two Japanese officers. He is allowed to select 20 other prisoners though as substitute drivers; he does so knowing the remaining men may not have long to live.

Under all the stress, Dr. Wilson and Rabe become friends; drinking, singing, and playing the piano together. The committee celebrates Christmas together. Some packages have made it to them from the outside world. Rabe even gets an unmarked one. It is a Gugelhupf cake. Rabe faints as he realizes that his wife must have sent him this, his favorite cake, as a secret message that she is safe and well. His friends rush to his aid. Dr. Wilson discovers that Rabe is diabetic and has run out of insulin. The doctor manages then to procure some vital insulin from the Japanese authorities.

Things get more desperate in the new year. Rabe offers his last savings to buy supplies. The committee wonders why the Girls College requires so much rice. Mme Dupres confides to Rabe that she is hiding an attic full of Chinese soldiers. Rabe is aghast, realizing that should they be discovered by the Japanese, this would mean the end of the safety zone. The Japanese military does plan to invade the safety zone. The young major however secretly tips off the leaders of the safety zone about the invasion plan and that the diplomatic corps is about to return. As Japanese troops march up to the gates of the zone, Chinese civilians form human shields together with the international committee. Japanese tanks are brought into position as well, but before a shot can be fired, the horn of a steamboat signals the return of Western diplomats and journalists.

The film ends with Rabe making his farewells. Carrying a small suitcase, he is escorted by a troupe of Japanese through the ruins of Nanking to the harbor. There he is recognized and cheered by the Chinese. Finally, he is reunited with his wife on the pier.


Most major characters are historically accurate. However, Rabe's important fellow Nanking Safety Zone committee member Minnie Vautrin, actual director of the Ginling Girls College, is substituted by a fictive French Lady Valérie Dupres of an "International Girls College".


"After such a long time, there should be a way of dealing differently with the responsibility they have, rather than trying to avoid it or make it disappear."

-Director Florian Gallenberger, hoping the film will trigger a new dialogue and help Japan come to terms with its past.[3]

Florian Gallenberger stated that although working with the Chinese censorship authorities was protracted, it was not impossible. The resulting film was deemed satisfactory. International Sino-Japanese politics was a more erratic interference. At one point concern about good relations because of a major gas exploration joint-venture caused production to be halted. When a Japanese school book was published without the Nanking massacre however, the go-ahead was given again.[4]

Shunned in Japan

In Japan, none of the major film companies were willing to watch the screening.[5] Florian Gallenberger also confirms these difficulties.[4] The director was asked by one potential distributor if they could remove all footage of Prince Asaka, but were refused.[6]

See also


External links

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