Sunday 9 May 2010

The Good Nazi

I recently saw City of Life and Death, a Chinese-language movie about the infamous Nanking Massacre of December 1937, an incident in the second Sino-Japanese War. One of the people featured was John Rabe, the German businessman instrumental in setting up the Nanking Safety Zone, a haven for civilians recognised by the Japanese authorities, thereby saving thousands of lives.

I love serendipity, the chance discovery of things I did not know, and I knew next to nothing about this war or the career of John Rabe, rather a pity because in a way he was a much more significant figure in the history of humanitarian causes than Oscar Schindler. Like Schindler, Rabe was a member of the Nazi Party, though he was clearly a man without a Nazi heart, if that makes sense.

Although he features in City of Life and Death he takes on a much more central role in John Rabe, a biopic directed by Florian Gallenberger, starring Ulrich Tukur as Rabe. It was premiered last year at the fifty-ninth Berlin Film Festival, where it won awards for best film, best actor, best production design and best costume design. Tukur also won the best actor prize at the Bavarian Film Awards later that year.

The honours were well-deserved, for his performance is measured, thoughtful and assured. The movie itself, though, has a much more ‘mainstream’ feel, not nearly as powerful, in my estimation, as City of Life and Death, far more emotionally intense in every way.

But even so John Rabe has some sublime moments. There is a scene where the Japanese Air Force is bombing the Siemens factory where Rabe is the manager. The yard is full of Chinese civilians. In a gamble Rabe unfurls a huge Nazi flag and gets everyone to shelter beneath it, hoping the pilots will recognise the symbol of a friendly power. The bombing stops at once. I never, ever thought I would see a swastika as a symbol of salvation!

It’s a reasonably enjoyable, uplifting movie, very much in Hollywood style, about a good Nazi or, rather, a good man, a man with a well developed sense of duty and morality. I saw it online at There is just one thing. There are no English subtitles, though a good bit of the dialogue among the international community is in English. The rest is in German, including the extracts from Rabe’s Diaries, upon which the movie is based, Mandarin and Japanese. My German is good; my Mandarin and Japanese non-existent! Still, there is very little Chinese dialogue and as the Japanese are almost always shouting it’s reasonably easy to guess what is going on.


  1. Have I already read your review of this film, or am I suffering from Yellow Lib Dem fever? Either way, it is interesting as I've said before, the Sino-Japanese War was to the Oriental Theatre what the Spanish Civil War was for The European War, perhaps more so, because it was the direct action of a belligerent as opposed to the proxy actions of an allied faction.

    Just another point--I have to laugh at 'Bavarian Film Festival', I'm sure it's a lovely ceremony, but the image I have of jolly men in lederhosen giving out film awards makes me realise.....I'd sooner be there than the BAFTAS, Oscars or Cann.

  2. Oh thank heavens, I've just gone through the archives and see it was Rabe you wrote about and not specifically the film. Oh well, back to the coalition table for me!

  3. Is it possible, Ana, to be a paid-up, voluntary member of the Nazi party and yet a moral person, too? Where do our moral beliefs come from?

    Your account of Rabe got me thinking (as many of your articles do). Care to take a look? ...


  4. Adam, you can have one cabinet post and one only, that of Minister of Munitions. :-))

    Jamie, clearly it is if we take the case of Schindler and Rabe. I think morality, true morality, comes when our assumptions and preconceptions are put to the test. Thanks for that link; I'll come over and check.

  5. HEHE--oh please, but to be Foreign Secretary.

  6. Like Churchill before me I'll take it--but I fear you'd consign me to the wilderness in subsequent years....till I prove to be useful, just before being spat upon by an un-grateful electorate.