Seventeen years since Steven Spielberg made a hero out of Oskar Schindler (via Schindler's List), German businessman John Rabe receives the "Schindler" treatment twice over thanks to two foreign dramas about the horrific December 1937 invasion by the Imperial Japanese Army of Nanking, China. Rabe is a key supporting character in Chinese filmmaker Lu Chuan's artful City of Life and Death, due for release later this year from National Geographic World Films. Reaching U.S. arthouses first is German filmmaker Florian Gallenberger's epic period drama, John Rabe (titled City of War: John Rabe for its international release). Gallenberger is an Oscar winner (Best Short Film in 2001) and enjoys a modest reputation among world cinema fans for his debut feature, Shadows of Time. Boasting impressive production values, engaging storytelling and a standout lead performance by German star Ulrich Tukur, John Rabe will receive enthusiastic word of mouth from select arthouse audiences when LA-based specialty distributor Strand Releasing opens the film in mid-May. While overall box office for John Rabe will be extremely limited by its modest platform release and increasing competition for arthouse screens, the film will prove to be an impressive addition to Strand's line-up and introduce Gallenberger to larger North American audiences.
While Lu Chuan's City of Life and Death focuses on the December 9th Japanese invasion and the heroic efforts of Chinese soldiers, Gallenberger uses the siege as a gripping backdrop to tell the story of Rabe (Tukur), director of Siemens China and a loyal member of the Nazi party. Like Schindler, Rabe is a complex hero with more than his share of character flaws, all in addition to his unsavory politics. Giving a tour to one of his Siemens colleagues, Rabe refers to his Chinese factory workers as "children." Yet, once the Japanese invasion of Nanking is complete and the city's historic wall is destroyed, Rabe proves his loyalty to Nanking by leading the effort to establish and manage a vast International Safety Zone in the fortified city center.
John Rabe is only Gallenberger's second feature, but the director shows the narrative skills and technical craft to tell a period drama that’s epic in scope. John Rabe has tense battle scenes with Japanese Zeros buzzing over the Siemens factory buildings. More impressive are the film's intimate scenes involving Rabe and his Safety Zone colleagues. Veteran cinematographer Jürgen Jürges, who's collaborated with Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Michael Haneke, makes stunning use of the period Nanking setting. Production designer Tu Juhua brings ’30s Nanking alive with impressive detail. Editor Hansjörg Weißbrich keeps Gallengerger's story moving swiftly throughout its 134 minutes.
U.S. fans of arthouse cinema will recognize Tukur thanks to his roles in The White Rose, Taking Sides and most especially The Lives of Others. His work in John Rabe is just as impressive. Bold, brash and strong enough to support a large-scale war drama, Tukur also bares Rabe's character flaws for all to see. Tukur makes Rabe painfully human, which makes his struggles to save the people of Nanking powerful to watch. Arthouse veteran Steve Buscemi adds quality support as Dr. Robert Wilson, a hospital administrator and surgeon who slowly becomes Rabe's friend.
Strand Releasing opens John Rabe in May 2009 and plans a platform release for the film, already an award-winner in its native Germany. More U.S. audiences are aware of the Nanking invasion thanks to the 2007 documentary Nanking by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, and period war dramas are popular due to the success of cable TV miniseries The Pacific on HBO. Still, a period war drama, even one that emphasizes English dialogue, attracts only a select audience of North American film fans. Strand can expect a modest theatrical take similar to period war dramas Katyn and Joyeux Noel.
On a more personal note, it's worth mentioning that Rabe died in obscurity in 1950. Gallenberger's film will help bring the spotlight to a man worthy of the attention.
Distributor: Strand Releasing
Cast: Ulrich Tukur, Steve Buscemi, Daniel Brühl, Dagmar Manzel and Anne Consigny
Director/Screenwriter: Florian Gallenberger
Producers: Jan Mojto, Benjamin Herrmann and Mischa Hofmann
Running time: 134 min.
Release Date: May 21 NY, June 4 LA