Having read The Good German of Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe, I was eager to watch this dramatization of John Rabe's role in saving hundreds of thousands of Chinese during the massacre of Nanjing by the Japanese Imperial army in 1937. Ulrich Tukur is credible as the German businessman who opts to stay and protect the Chinese civilians by setting up a Safety Zone. This safety zone protected around 200,000 Chinese civilians (historical accounts differ as to the actual number) from almost certain death during the six-week period that the Japanese troops terrorized the city and its inhabitants. This historical event has come to be known as the Nanjing Massacre (or Nanking Massacre), and is also called the Rape of Nanking because of the thousands of women and children who were brutally assaulted by Japanese soldiers during this period.
The movie itself has excerpts of Rabe's diaries as the "narrator" of events as they unfold. Ulrich Tukur plays John Rabe and delivers a compelling and credible performance. I liked that the movie does not overly romanticize Rabe. He is portrayed as a loyal citizen of Nazi Germany, and one who initially has hopes that his Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, will step in and put a stop to Japanese atrocities in Nanjing (Japan being Germany's ally during WW II). He is disturbed when a fellow German, Dr. Georg Rosen (Daniel Bruhl) salutes "Heil Shitler" and reprimands him for being unpatriotic. Of course, Rosen has good reason for his act, explaining how Hitler's anti-Semitic policies have affected his family. It paints a rather naive picture of Rabe, who having spent about 27 years in China, has not realized (or perhaps, fails to see?) the danger posed by the Nazis.
Anyway, the story is not about the Nazis, but about Japanese atrocities in Nanjing, and how Rabe and a few foreigners try to save the Chinese civilians by setting up a Safety Zone. There is plenty of violence, and some archival footage woven into the narrative which is quite disturbing in its depiction of brutality and victims' suffering (but not nearly as disturbing as reading true accounts of the time, and seeing the actual historical photographs). This movie also suffers from melodramatic moments, as when a young Chinese girl tries to escape wearing a Japanese soldier's uniform, and miraculously flees to safety. Such stories may have happened, but the way it is dramatized in the movie seems a tad over the top.
Despite its flaws, I felt this movie was well-acted not just by Tukur (another WW II drama with Tukur is Amen a compelling drama about the Holocaust), but also the supporting cast, including Anne Consigny as Valerie Dupres, the lady who ran a Girls' College in Nanjing and fought to keep her girls safe from the Japanese soldiers. There's also the American doctor (played by Steve Buscemi) who is initially cynical about Rabe's intentions, but later comes to appreciate the man (also watch out for a wonderful duet by Rabe and the doctor, singing a song about Hitler's balls!). This is a compelling, well-acted historical drama, and merits watching for those who are interested in the subject.
For those who are interested in a documentary about the Nanjing Massacre, I'd recommend:
Books on the subject:
The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II
Terror in Minnie Vautrin's Nanjing: Diaries and Correspondence, 1937-38