A German-Chinese-French co-production, City of War: The John Rabe Story aka John Rabe suffered the misfortune of coming out internationally at the same time as the much more stark and graphic City of Life and Death, the two films cancelling each other out at the box-office and in critics' minds, which is a pity because it's quite an impressive picture on its own merits.
Telling the story of John Rabe, the head of Siemens in Nanking who saved thousands of lives during the astonishingly brutal rape and destruction of the city by the Japanese by creating a precarious Safety Zone, it avoids turning him into a movie saint and highlights many of the awkward aspects of his character: as well as having a corporate middle management mentality and a patronising view of the Chinese, he was also a member of the Nazi Party who initially supported the Japanese invasion as potentially good for business. True, the film does provide him with a hardline Nazi to contrast his more gently patrician style of corporate exploitation, but it also offers Steve Buscemi's American doctor to constantly remind the audience of his political allegiance as well as Daniel Bruhl's Jewish diplomat to remind the audience what the Nazis stood for. Yet surprisingly and refreshingly it doesn't impose a rude political awakening upon its hero: he never sees the light and, for all his humanitarianism, remains a Nazi to the end. Thanks to Ulrich Tukur's beautifully observed low key performance he remains a figure who triumphs from his ability to manage logistics and negotiations rather than an idealised movie hero, a quiet, ordinary man applying his business skills to the business of saving lives.
The film certainly has one of the more troubling images of recent years for anyone trying to market a movie, with hundreds of refugees cowering under a giant Nazi flag as Japanese planes fly overhead: if the Germans and Japanese weren't allies it's the kind of image you could see Goebbels jumping at. In reality, Japan claimed all the credit for the Safety Zone while Rabe was written out of history and returned to Germany in disgrace, to be arrested by the Gestapo as a Chinese collaborator, forbidden to lecture about what he had seen and died in poverty.
For once the multi-national cast isn't just there for co-production reasons, the film a truly multi-lingual affair that gives supporting players like Buscemi and Anne Consigny real and substantial roles to play rather than mere cameos to add a familiar name in the US and France for the DVD sleeve (though curiously Consigny's real-life character has her name changed from Minnie Vautrin to Valérie Dupres). It's well-staged by writer-director Florian Gallenberger, with convincing special effects that don't take you out of the movie with their artificiality melding well with surviving period buildings in Shanghai to recreate the city, but it's never quite as powerful as it could be. The film does go surprisingly easy on the Japanese atrocities, which tend to happen offscreen or are far more tastefully handled than the sordid events merit (though that didn't prevent production in China being briefly halted over concerns of the film's impact on Sino-Chinese business relationships). Although it draws on some surviving black and white footage that only hints at how bad things are, by concentrating so much on Rabe the film does tend to fail to really convey the sheer overwhelming scale of one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. Censorship concerns may have played a part, but it does unfortunately dilute much of the film's impact, though the few glimpses beyond the Zone's walls the film affords are perhaps more striking for their scarcity. Even those were enough for local distributors to boycott the film in Japan, where it remains without a distributor.
Despite Metrodome opting for their usual Swastika-and-strafing-plane artwork that's their default mode for every cheap European war movie they pick up for UK distribution, they've done a decent job with the DVD, offering a good 2.35:1 transfer, half hour making of featurette and trailer.