2007-12-12 (Limited release)

I remain assured in hard experience that neither by national guns nor national gods will mankind be saved, but only by the genuine regard for all members of the human family.

— Miner Searle Bates (Graham Sibley)

In 1937, Nanking was the capitol of China. A thriving hub of commerce, education, and cooperation, its population included hundreds of Americans and Europeans who considered the city their home. “The boulevards were lined with Chinese parasol trees,” remembers Chang Zhi Qiang. “It was very beautiful.” Only nine years old in 1937, Chang recalls that his concerns were suitably simple: “As long as I could go to school, I was happy.” As he speaks, you see footage of smiling schoolchildren, people riding bicycles along tree-lined paths, ice skaters in plaid skirts and sweaters.

The first minutes of Nanking work two ways. First, they lay out the basic historical plot: in August, China was invaded by the Japanese, at the time in league with the Nazis. The second effect concerns the film’s unusual structure: while several Chinese survivors and Japanese soldiers recall their experiences, other memories are presented as dramatic readings, drawn from Westerners’ diaries and letters and performed by actors. The film opens on the cast arriving on set, chatting at a craft services table, and their performances are framed as talking heads, sometimes accompanied by illustrative photos and footage.

On paper, this combination sounds unwieldy, but on screen, it is exceptionally effective and appropriately jarring. Inspired by Iris Chang’s book, The Rape of Nanking, the film recounts the effort by some 22 Westerners to set up a Safety Zone in Nanking, sheltering some 250,000 Chinese. (Another documentary recounts Chang’s own story, including her criticism by revisionists and her suicide in 2004.) The initial bombings of Shanghai (180 miles east) and Nanking are rendered through archival images: Chinese citizens run and panic, as Chang Yu Zheng (Rosalind Chao) remembers what her parents “always said,” that “Japan wants to conquer China because China has all the land all the wealth.” Cao Zhi Kun, nine years old in 1937, recollects the sight of planes over Nanking, then his own attempt to run, until he felt a “burning hot” wound. He reaches down to show the scar on his thigh, still grisly some 70 years later. Scrambling among the accumulating corpses, he spotted his father, who didn’t recognize him, “because my face was blackened with ash and blood and all kinds of muck.” At last, Cao says, his voice cracking, his father found him and carried him on his back.

John Rabe’s (Jürgen Prochnow) memory is equally but differently horrific. A German businessman and member of the National Socialist Party, he hunkered down during the bombing, surrounded by “my Chinese.” He explains his decision to stay behind her than escape with the majority of Westerners: “Anyone who has ever sat in a dugout and held a trembling Chinese child in each hand, they can understand what I feel. The rich are fleeing, the poor remain behind. They don’t know where to go, they don’t have the means to flee. Shouldn’t I make an attempt to help them?” It’s this sense of moral obligation that leads Rabe and others — including the surgeon Bob Wilson (Woody Harrelson), missionary George Fitch (John Getz), and women’s college dean Minnie Vautrin (Mariel Hemingway) — to remain in Nanking. Rabe, head of the Safety Zone Committee, appealed to Hitler himself for official sanction, to no avail. Sociology professor Lewis Smythe (Stephen Dorff) notes the irony of their situation: “The burden of work,” he laments, “is to be carried out by American missionaries and a group of German Nazi businessmen.”

This work was harrowing, to be sure (such effect underlined by the film’s Kronos Quartet score). Many of the details of daily survival and atrocity recounted in Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman’s film were brought to light by the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunals (May 1946 to November 1948), which found that civilians were buried alive, used for bayonet practice, raped, tortured, and executed, over 200,000 killed in just six weeks. Chang Zhi Qiang cries as he remembers, “The ground was littered with corpses I stepped on so much blood that the bottom of my shoes became sticky.” He saw his infant brother stabbed by a Japanese soldier and “tossed” away. When his mother attempted to breast-feed the baby (who miraculously survived the initial assault), Chang says, “I could see she was bleeding from several stab wounds. My brother was drinking milk while a stab wound beside her breast was gushing blood.”

The Japanese interviewees describe other sorts of trauma. A soldier, Mitani Shou, remembers his arrival in Nanking: “There were rows of dead body mountains. Piles of dead bodies had been put in the field.” Essentially deeming all Chinese men and boys “soldiers,” the Japanese slaughtered civilians by the thousands. As Wilson puts it, “There seems to be no stop to the ferocity of the Japanese,” who came to his hospital and dragged patients from their beds. Unable to look after their numerous prisoners, the invaders summarily killed them. Hayashi Otokichi, a member of the occupying Yamada Unit (who, a title tells you, “processed” thousands of prisoners of war), remembers, “We tied their hands tied them together, two by two,” then “shot them from behind with guns.” Because many survived shooting by machine guns, he says, “We stabbed them with bayonets. We finished off 20,000 soldiers. It didn’t leave my ears, the pitiful sound of their voices.”

At times, the stories told by and about the Westerners recall the hagiographic memories of Oskar Schindler. Survivors recall that Vautrin fearlessly stood up to the Japanese soldiers who tried to take away girls and young women in her care, waving the American flag and so, making them “afraid.” Westerners stood before Chinese civilians and told the Japanese they would have to shoot them — the Westerners — first. Still, their endeavors couldn’t stop the massacre. Nanking, says missionary Miner Searle Bates (Graham Sibley), “Looks like a garden that’s been devoured by locusts.”

Of course, the Westerners’ stories can only frame those of the Japanese aggressors and Chinese survivors, who include child rape victims as well as children who escaped death by hiding in piles of dead bodies. Luo Zhong Yang, a Chinese soldier who was 17 at the time, remembers being rounded up in the public square with hundreds of others. The Japanese, he says, then asked which way they wanted to be killed, by drowning, shooting, or explosion. “One man shouted,” he says, “‘How dare you ask us how we want to be killed? How ridiculous to give us a choice!'” Jiang Gen Fu remembers his 13-year-old sister, who slapped a Japanese soldier in the face when he tried to rape her. The assailant pulled out his “long blade,” the brother says, his voice halting at the thought of it, and cut her in two. One of the most chilling stories is told by a Japanese soldier, who describes the process by which he and his fellows committed rapes. “We’d take the girl and five of us would hold her down,” he says. “It’s like that, she’d be foaming at the mouth.”

The film includes as well stunning 16mm footage, shot secretly by Reverend John G. Magee (Hugo Armstrong) and smuggled out of China by Fitch. These stark images, shown without soundtrack, provide eloquent, horrifying testimony. As part of the innovative mix of representations in Nanking, they insist on the power of disclosure, the profound effects of visual representations. To this day, some Japanese dispute the numbers of citizens affected or deny the genocidal war crimes took place at all. Even as history changes to accommodate current needs and frameworks, it’s crucial to remember those who lived it.

RATING 8 / 10