Based on the diaries of John Rabe, a German-born member of the Nazi party, City of War follows the events of the 1937 Nanking Massacre, also known as The Rape of Nanking, by Japanese troops.
It’s disturbing source material I know, but it made for a compelling and deeply emotional war movie.
Rabe is a fairly complacent member of the Nazi party living in China and he’s grown fond of the country and of its people. At the request of the party, he and wife Dora are scheduled to return to Berlin.
Before he can leave, he wins a nomination to lead a group of European and US diplomats, doctors and teachers who want to set up a safety-zone in the heart of Nanking. Suddenly there’s aggression from the Japanese Imperial Army and a ship that’s carrying Dora safely back to Berlin is bombed. Heartbroken, Rabe pours all his energy into protecting the people of China.
Over 200,000 people are saved by Rabe and the others but hundreds of thousands of people die in the conflict and that’s not something the director, Florian Gallenberger, shies away from. This is a very distressing film and the cruelties of war are all on camera, including executions, attempted rape, beheadings and the degradation of women. Well crafted but with a running time of over two hours, its brutal honesty is a little overwhelming.
There are also some powerfully emotional performances, particularly from Ulrich Tukur as Rabe; a kind-hearted man who organises the group behind the safety-zone. Inglourious Basterds star Daniel Bruhl plays a German diplomat whose pleas to negotiate with the Japanese fall on deaf ears, and holding her own amongst the men is Anne Consigny, who puts in a steely yet sentimental performance as Valérie Dupres, the guardian of a group of schoolgirls.
Steve Buscemi is wonderful as American surgeon Robert Wilson, who is apposed to Rabe’s status as a Nazi provides some interesting conflict. He also carries some of the lighter moments including an amusing rendition of the Colonel Bogey March. Every actor gives their heart and soul and the result is a distressing, violent, heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful film.