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John Rabe is running Siemens’ Nanjing operations for 27 years. Just when his tenure is coming to an end in 1937, and his replacement has already arrived, Nanjing gets attacked by the Japanese forces taking over China’s East. Rabe realises that his staying could make a difference, and he helps the international community to establish a safety zone to protect the civilian population from the atrocities that mark the path of the Japanese army.

It is interesting to see how this experiment would work out: a German-Chinese co-production, with a young director who has not had a chance to prove that he can manage big-scale porductions. A film that tries to find the balance between blockbuster-style war scenes, and the intimate struggle of a man who never choses to be a hero, but (quite credibly) becomes one by just being the same person that was the best choice for running the factory. While the first half our or more drags along a bit, shifting the figures into position on the Nanjing chess board, checking all the boxes of a wartime drama and not providing anything unexpected or exciting narratively or visually, the film gains momentum with the actual invasion of Nanjing by the Japanese army, the establishment of the safety zone, and the dense and perilious atmosphere in there that one knows from depiction of the Warsaw ghetto. People trying to get in with their lives in impossible circumstances (the school girls keeping on doing classes while the school’s attic is packed with Chinese soldiers they illegally hide), permanent crisis management on the brink of or in the face of massacre, the stunning silence of the internaational community, and through a strange twist of developments Adolf Hitler being the last hope of those despaired prisoners.
Under duress, the actors loosen up and play more freely and intensily, Ulrich Tukur as John Rabe is a very appropriate physical presence, with the right degree of Germanness around him, and the stunningly aged and worn-looking Steve Buscemi is almost too good as the cynical bonesaw in the middle of all that blood and guts.
At the end of the day, it will be the story that is more memorable than the way the film tells it, as too much conventional story-telling is not the right tool for yet another wartime story. But a solid effort at a tale that must be told.
The decision to shoot and leave the film in its “real” languages should be praised! The flavour of the period and the location gets all the more authentic this way – this is how “Valkyrie” should have been done.

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