Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A surprising source of redemption in the most powerful film of the year

One of the good things about being stranded in England is being able to catch some movies (they are always dubbed at home - a rare example of Italian inelegance). I've been particularly lucky that it's been at a time when some of the finest films of the year are on release - Kick Ass, with it's explosive c-word scene an instant classic, I am Love, an art-house meditation on the brutal authenticity of love, and City of Life and Death, on the pitilessness of war and specifically the 1937 "Rape of Nanking".

With our own focus on the Holocaust, Chinese suffering in the 1930s and 40s tends to be overlooked, yet between 10-20 million lost their lives. Before the war in the West had even begun (and long before Pearl Harbor) the Japanese had invaded China and sacked its then-capital Nanking.

The atrocities committed presaged those to come, as graphically portrayed in the film, the most convincing depiction of World War Two war crime since the Russian Come and See and certainly superior to Schindler's List, not least because for most of the characters there is no happy ending. It is also a far more complex film, making an attempt to understand this dreadful "phenomenon" from both sides and even daring to empathise to a limited extent with the perpetrators. We criticse China's freedoms, but I cannot imagine a Western film as even-handed - Letters from Iwo Jima perhaps, but the context was very different.

A further example of how it challenges our preconceptions is the portrayal of the leading "hero", Nazi official, John Rabe, German consul in Nanking. Rabe represents the refugees in the so-called Zone of Safety and does all he can, alongside American missionary Minnie Vautrin, to protect the terrified civilians. Unlike Oscar Schindler, it appears Rabe was a convinced Nazi, although for his activities he ended up being questioned by the Gestapo on his return to Germany and lived in poverty after the war, supported by a grateful Chinese government. Traumatised by what she witnessed, Vautrin committed suicide at home in Illinois in 1940.

What comes out of the film quite strongly is how, in the wrong circumstances - inevitably unlimited power - human beings can behave to other human beings. It is ironic that Rabe, apparently at the time a true believer in the Nazi's perversion of Nietzsche, should, when faced by its consequences, become the champion of the weak. It is perhaps one of the few sources of redemption in this outstanding, unflinching film.

I also saw Roman Polanski's highly-rated The Ghost Writer but thought it was crap.