Movie About China’s Schindler Tells Story of Unlikely German Hero

As a Nazi loyalist, Rabe was an unlikely World War II hero

John Rabe is an unlikely hero. He was a member of the Nazi party and the German electronics giant Siemens’ man in China during the tense buildup to World War II.

But based in Nanking in 1937, Rabe also helped to save about 250,000 Chinese from the clutches of Japan’s vicious military machine as Tokyo stepped its drive into China.

“Ten years ago it was not possible to conceive that there was such thing as a good Nazi,” said Ulrich Tukur, who plays Rabe in a film about his life that had its world premiere at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.

“The Third Reich is indeed typical of the depths that humans can sink and which is in each of us,” said Tukur in an interview with the Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

But he went on to a say “that every part of the history is built by a never-ending number of pieces of a mosaic.”

Based on Rabe’s published dairies, Munich-born director Florian Gallenberger’s movie John Rabe comes amid a mini-boom in movies about Hitler’s Germany.

This includes British director Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, about a teenager living in 1950s Germany who has a passionate affair with an older woman he later discovers was a Nazi concentration guard, and Valkyrie, starring Tom Cruise, which tells of a plot to assassinate Hitler.

Starring British-born Kate Winslet, The Reader was also screened at this year’s Berlinale.

But the events surrounding Rabe’s story and his efforts to protect the people of a country that he had developed a deep affection for date back to 1937, two years before Hitler’s troops marched into Poland igniting World War II.

The Good German of Nanking as his diaries are called, Rabe helped to bring Chinese civilians to safety and to escape the horrors of what is known as the rape of Nanking by helping to set up and take over the running of a special security zone.

But Rabe also runs into opposition in the local foreign community in Nanking, among them American physician Robert Wilson played by US actor Steve Buscemi.

Dismissing Rabe as “the Nazi,” Wilson rejects the idea of the Siemens’ man taking charge of the security zone housing the Chinese. However, Wilson later becomes Rabe’s deputy.

Rabe is also assisted by a German Jewish diplomat called Georg Rosen, who is played by leading German actor Daniel Bruhl.

As the Japanese move to tighten their grip on Nanking, Rabe happens on the idea to hoist a Nazi flag over the Siemens compound, where the Chinese citizens are held up so to keep the Japanese bombers at bay.

Remarkably, Gallenberger uses the instruments danger and horror as well humour to tell his story about Rabe’s calm and low-key heroism during a dramatic and fearful time in history.

Relations between China and Japan are still shaped by the brutality of the imperial Japan’s military’s barbarous crackdown on the Chinese population during 1937.

A convincing portrayal of Rabe’s life, 37-year-old Gallenberger’s movie is also another sign of German filmmakers attempting to regain control of their nation’s history and wrestle it away from the movie industry in Hollywood and London.

Moreover, the Nazi wartime movies that have emerged from Germany in recent also demonstrate that German filmmakers also often have new stories to tell about the war.

“I have the feeling that the long shadow of National Socialism is being lifted,” said Tukur.

“You notice that this country’s young directors see the culture and the people differently, also with more affection,” said Tukur.


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