Wednesday, 21 April 2010

City of War reviewed

Director/writer: Florian Gallenberger

France/China/Germany 129 mins 129 mins Cert 15

DVD release date: 3rd May 2010

Cast:  Ulrich Tukur, Daniel Brühl, Steve Buscemi, Anne Consigny.

Both Florian Gallenberger’s City of War, the Story of John Rabe, and Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death, deal with the rape of Nanking by the Japanese military during December 1937, when an estimated 300,000 people were systematically massacred by the Imperial Army after the remaining Chinese nationalist troops had fled, the city being the capital of China at that time. I understand that the extent of that atrocity has not been fully acknowledged by the Japanese government up to this day. Indeed, Florian Gallenberger had problems in casting Japanese actors for the film, as many rejected the offer outright as being ‘off limits’. Those who finally agreed to appear did on the grounds that it was an aspect of their national history they had to come to terms with.

City of War charts the story of John Rabe, a German industrialist based for over two decades as head of Siemens Nanking, a good Nazi and an admirer of the Führer, Adolf Hitler; who ended his life in complete obscurity in Germany as he was ostracized by the Nazi hierarchy for ‘having cooperated with the Chinese’. His crime? Having participated, and led, the International Protection Zone established in Nanking by Europeans and Americans, thanks to which an estimated 200,00-250,000 of its inhabitants survived the Japanese brutal and indiscriminate slaughter. Further more, the Allies refused to include him in their programme of de-Nazification after WW2, his diaries laying in obscurity for decades. Ulrich Tukur played the part of John Rabe with a mouth watering stunning brilliance, charting the complexities, humanity and nuances of the character facing deep personal and moral dilemmas in literally life and death situations.

Both films are also controversial not only in Japan, but also in China, as both depict Japanese officers having serious misgivings about the actions of the army, and their own actions, in the events depicted. I understand that Lu Chuan has received death threats within China, although that may not be the case of Florian Gallenberger as he is not Chinese.

For the Japanese hierarchy at the time, modernity was seen as a no-hold barred warfare, a need to win and exert their superiority on the Chinese at any cost. The attack on Nanking did not follow the usual military tactic of besieging a city until it falls, as one of the generals assumed, but took the form of a direct assault because the Emperor wanted a ‘modern warfare’. Modernity became a war crime.

John Rabe, the good Nazi, immensely proud of his work of 27 years for Siemens in Nanking, a paternalistic European who looks down on, and treat, his subordinates as children, ultimately goes out of his way to open the gates of the factory to his desperate workers seeking sanctuary when the Japanese began their aerial bombardment of the city, swiftly followed by their triumphant ground attack. We follow his actions during that December of 1937, as piles of corpses on top of piles of corpses line not only the streets of Nanking, but are also literally piled on the doorsteps of the Protection Zone, courtesy of the Japanese military. His humanity not only prevails over his ideology, but ultimately fractures it, although at no moment he does openly admit it.

Steve Buscemi goes through the motions of playing the part of Dr Robert Wilson, an American surgeon working at the time in Nanking, his performance being ’cartoonish’, reminiscent of Ghost World (his part was badly written in the script: stereotyped); while the French actress Anne Consigny is splendid as the head mistress of the girls school.

However, don’t be fooled in thinking that City of War is a moralistic dry and tedious film: it is not. It is an utterly gripping story narrated with vigour and panache, a story that holds its strength and rhythm throughout, entertaining until its last frame. It has nothing to envy to blockbusters and war epics in its special effects and action sequences. The film has been criticized for attempting to ape Hollywood movies, although I fail to follow the logic of such comments. However, I thought that the ‘feel good’ character of the last scene somehow spoils the overall feel of the film, although its cathartic effect will undoubtedly be welcomed by many viewers after its graphic depictions of so many atrocities. Grainy black and white documentary footage from that time is unconvingcingly woven into the fabric of the film, the integration feels overwrought and forced. The use of the musical score is very conventional and annoying.

City of War explores the frailties and complexities of an era, shades of grey involving matters of life and death, of survival, the moral dilemmas faced – and that includes those of some of the Japanese military, by people in a daily basis. It highlights the mould breaking humanity of one man, John Rabe; a figure of, to some extent, similar stature to that of Oskar Schindler. The film is not only an homage to people such as Rabe, who were able to carry out great humanist deeds because they had the power, however little it may have turned out to be under the sustained assault of the brutality of ideology, and the means to do; but also it should be seen as an homage to the many uncountable anonymous people who did as much as they could in their small ways to alleviate the impact of that insane brutality. However, I doubt that City of War will put John Rabe on the same level to that of Oskar Schindler in the international conscience, simply because Hollywoood got in there first with Spielberg’s Schindler List. Oskar Schindler was a swindler who used the Nazis for his own ends, his humanity prevailing, while Rabe was a man who believed in the Nazis.

The disc also contains an excellent documentary on the making of the film, with interviews to its director and writer, Florian Gallinberger (winner of an Oscar for Best Short film in 2001), to Ulrich Tukur, Anne Consigny, and other members of the cast and crew. The trabsfer of the film onot DVD is excellent.

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