Judge Jennifer Malkowski is always amazed at how Western directors manage to find white Western heroes at the center of foreign conflicts.
"The true story of how a few brave souls saved the lives of thousands."
In this well-made and important documentary about the brutality of Japan's 1937 attack on the Republic of China's then-capital city, the title of the film itself hints at one damaging flaw: The spelling and pronunciation "Nanking" is the Western version of China's "Nanjing." And what we get in the film itself mirrors what we get in the title: the Western version of the story.
Facts of the Case
In the fall of 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army attacked China's capital city, Nanking, with air raids and then a full-scale military occupation as part of the Second Sino-Japanese War, a war between the two countries that began independently from World War Two, but later interacted with it. Nanking focuses on the plight of the individual city, whose citizens were subjected to truly horrific murders and rapes at the hands of the Japanese, with an estimated 200,000 murders and 20,000 rapes in the first four-to-six weeks of the occupation. At the center of this film is the story of small a group of white Westerners that stayed in Nanking after other foreigners had been evacuated. With no support from their home governments and no real authority, these Westerners were able to establish a small "Safety Zone" for some of Nanking's citizens that they forbade the Japanese army from entering. Out of fear of their home governments, one supposes, the Japanese did not wholly disregard their demands and limited their violations of the Safety Zone. Through the actions of these foreigners, hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens were protected from the atrocities happening in the rest of the city.
With Nanking, directors Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman tell a devastating and important story from East Asian history with skill and sensitivity. But in their concentration on the Westerners who bravely protected the helpless Chinese citizens, they make the old and damaging assumption that Western audiences can only relate to the stories of foreign "others" if they center on the heroics and strength of white people. There is no question that these Westerners were heroes. There is no question that their story needs to be told. But what I do question is why their story needs to be packaged as the main attraction of an huge Chinese event of which they were only a small part, and why we so rarely get stories of other cultures that eschew the convention of scrounging up white main characters (think of fiction films like The Last King of Scotland or Blood Diamond, for example). From their diaries, it is clear that the Westerners themselves approached the situation with humility, but Guttentag and Sturman elevate them to the stars of the Nanking massacre—an unfortunate failing of an otherwise excellent historical documentary.
Using an unusual historical documentary strategy, Nanking casts celebrities like Woody Harrelson (No Country for Old Men) and Mariel Hemingway (Personal Best) to dress up as the individuals who established the Safety Zone and perform passages from their diaries on-screen, in an interview-type format. On second thought, the strategy is not so unusual: think Ken Burns, but with the famous people actually visible instead of just doing voiceovers.
The Westerners themselves are mostly missionaries. Despite the cultural disrespect and general sketchiness of trying to sway foreign people to your religion as a career, they prove their concern for and dedication to the Chinese people by risking their lives to protect them. And perhaps, in the end, it was their religious faith that empowered these individuals to persevere in this hellish environment. As one noted in his diary, "Religious faith is believing that good things are worth doing for their own sake, even in a world that seems overpoweringly evil." The most captivating of these missionaries is Minnie Vautrin, the dean of a women's college who saved a huge number of Nanking's women from rape and murder by tirelessly standing up to the Japanese soldiers. These rapes were widespread and brutal, as the film shows, and were perpetrated against girls as young as 10, women as old as 60, and teenage boys, too. Women shaved off their hair and tried to pass as men to avoid this violation, and those who resisted (and even those who didn't) were often bayonetted to death on the spot.
More interesting than the missionaries is the leader of the Safety Zone's committee, German businessman John Rabe. Rabe was a Nazi and firmly believed that Hitler—Japan's ally—would intervene to stop the massacre if he knew of its brutality. Suffice to say, help from the German government was not forthcoming. Despite his Nazi politics and the inhuman brutality that ideology was already beginning to bring forth in Europe, Rabe himself behaved in a truly compassionate way and saved thousands of lives by staying behind and running the Safety Zone (at least, this is the portrait of him the film paints). A fascinating continuation of his story reveals that after he returned to Germany years later, the Nazi government arrested and interrogated him for speaking about the Japanese atrocities in Nanking. He was left poor and destitute late in his life, and the citizens of Nanking whom he had helped years earlier sent him money to support himself in old age.
Though the marketing and narrative structure of the film presents the white Westerners as the stars, Guttentag and Sturman smartly give just as much screen time to interviews with Chinese citizens who survived the Nanking Massacre. These people are not actors playing historical roles, but really experiences these tragic events and, as a result, their interviews are far more compelling. Describing in terrifying detail experiences like allowing oneself to be raped in order to keep a soldier from killing one's grandfather, or posing as a corpse to escape the mass slaughter of Chinese soldiers and male citizens, these interviewees are living testaments to the atrocities committed against the Chinese people. In one particularly difficult scene, Chang Zhi Qiang describes at length the day he witnessed a Japanese soldier stab his mother and his baby brother to death in an alleyway.
Along with the interviews, the bulk of the film's visuals are comprised of archival footage from the occupation. These pictures and filmstrips are crucial to the story of the Nanking Massacre because at the time the Japanese government was suppressing knowledge of the atrocities and creating propaganda to convince its citizens that their military was behaving benevolently. One of the missionaries explains:
"Some Japanese newsmen came to the camp and handed out cake and apples and a few coins to the refugees. A moving picture was taken of this kind act. At the same time a bunch of soldiers climbed the back wall of the compound and raped a dozen or so women. No pictures were taken out back."
While traveling back to the United States, missionary George Fitch smuggled reels of film in the lining of his coat to bring back proof of the atrocities, though it did little good in terms of getting military help for Nanking. The individuals who risked their lives to document these war crimes—people being beheaded, buried or burned alive, piles of infant corpses—have provided us with visible evidence of what happened in Nanking, and, suffice to say, that evidence is very upsetting to watch. But its importance even today is seen in the continuing tensions between China and Japan on the Nanking issue, and the refusal of some Japanese nationalists to admit that the Rape of Nanking, as the event is commonly called, ever happened. That continuing tension is one of many reasons that a film like Nanking should be made and seen.
In describing his footage of the atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese soldiers, one missionary is careful to clarify: "These pictures have been taken with no thought of stirring up a spirited hatred against the Japanese but only with the desire to make all people realize how horrible war is."
As a film, Nanking also takes this approach of condemning the horrors of war in general as much as the actions of the Japanese in particular. What we should take from Nanking is not evidence of Japanese brutality, but one piece of evidence in the larger truth that war strips people of their humanity. In the past century, we have seen soldiers from many nations forget that their enemies are human beings and behave inhumanly toward them, and America has been guilty of this crime quite recently indeed.
In this very important sense, Nanking is an anti-war film at heart. And we certainly need more of those.
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