Nanking Bill Guttentag & Dan Sturman

Nanking Bill Guttentag & Dan Sturman
In the fall of 1937, two years before Germany marched into Poland, and four years before Pearl Harbour, the Japanese army marched into the then-Chinese capital of Nanking, slaughtered over 200,000 and raped tens of thousands of Chinese civilians. Amidst the horror, a tiny group of largely American and German expats saved 250,000 people.

This film tells that horrible story with honesty, accuracy and empathy; the result is a truly moving cinematic experience. Instead of the standard TV history treatment where an anonymous narrator drones over archival footage, this movie takes an unconventional approach. Nanking begins with Hollywood stars such as Mariel Hemingway, Jurgen Prochnow and Woody Harrelson reading from the diaries of the Western eyewitnesses. This is a smart move because it encourages Western audiences to connect with the setting and time, while the monologues uphold the story’s accuracy.

Interwoven with the monologues is shocking, grainy, black and white archival footage. The twisted limbs of men, women and children recall footage from Auschwitz. Mixed into that are contemporary interviews with Chinese victims, who were little children when it happened, and Japanese soldiers, some of whom reminisce about their killing and raping as if they were on a fishing trip.

While the footage is disturbing, the interviews hit hardest. One survivor recalls how his mother was bayoneted in the chest yet breastfed her starving infant — as her baby suckled her empty breasts, blood streamed down her body. Nanking is not an easy film to watch. The stories of rape and murder are relentless, though never sensationalised. Ironies do abound, however. John Rabe, a German Nazi, saved thousands of Chinese only to be forced into secrecy and poverty upon his return home. American missionary Minnie Vautrin saved equal numbers but her painful memories drove her to suicide a year after returning to the States.

Though the actor monologues are strange at first, the overall performances are solid, with special credit going to Hemingway for investing Vautrin with humanity and pathos. There are several films about the Nanking Massacre in the works but I doubt any of them will match the intensity of this one. (Th!nk)