John Rabe Sensationalizes as it Recreates a Hero


Like many historical dramas and biopics, John Rabe operates between the extremes of broad-stroked symbolism and selective detail, between poetic license and classroom exposition, between history and his story. The film recounts the true and largely overlooked actions of German businessman Rabe (a fine Ulrich Tukur), whose decision to remain in Nanking during the Japanese siege of 1937 made him a hero in China and a nuisance to the Nazis. A loyal member of the party, Rabe first fends off bombers by hiding factory workers underneath a giant swastika, then commands a safety zone that spares more than 200,000 civilian lives. It’s a remarkable story, and filmmaker Florian Gallenberger does his best to shade his portrait with complications and mitigations. But for a story not often told, John Rabe feels awfully familiar, recalling the wartime tragedies of Berlin, Warsaw, Spielberg, Polanski, et al. There are good Germans and bad Germans (the latter sporting a nasty scar), good Japanese and bad Japanese (snorting and glowering like dragons), a crack team of hardy heroes, whiffs of romance among the ruins, and somehow just one lead Chinese character. Historical melodramas like John Rabe soberly re-create events yet still manage to sensationalize them, whether through lingering shots of decapitated heads or a willfully uplifting climax. Cello-scored pantomimes of resilience and grief can make us feel, but it’s not always evident who or what that serves.