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In 1937, a decade of skirmishes between Japan and China erupted into full-scale war. In December, the Japanese army conquered the ancient Chinese capital of Nanking with such brutality that the event became known as the Rape of Nanking.
Hundreds of thousands in the city sought shelter in a safety zone set up by foreign businessmen, doctors and educators. A new film called "John Rabe" tells the story through their eyes. Pat Dowell reports.
PAT DOWELL: John Rabe was a real German businessman who lived in Nanking, now called Nanjing. For decades, he managed the Siemens company operations there. Rabe was a member of the Nazi Party who had never been to Hitler's Germany and seen what was going on there.
Germany and Japan were allies, and in the film, when Japanese planes first bomb the city, Rabe and his workers unfurl a giant Nazi flag like a canopy over their heads, in hopes the Japanese pilots will spare them.
(Soundbite of film, "John Rabe")
(Soundbite of aerial attack)
DOWELL: The scene was suggested by historical photos. This paradoxical image, the swastika as refuge, fascinates director Florian Gallenberger.
Mr. FLORIAN GALLENBERGER (Director, John Rabe): That is such a crazy thing that the icon, rightfully the icon, of the murdering of millions of people in a different place, in a different moment, became a symbol of security.
DOWELL: But in Nanjing in 1937, more than 200,000 prisoners and civilians were murdered, tortured and raped, according to witnesses who testified at the tribunal dealing with Japanese war crimes after World War II.
One of those witnesses was American doctor Robert Wilson, who is played in the film by Steve Buscemi. The actor says he knew nothing of Wilson before he signed on but researched him, even finding Wilson's letters reproduced on the Internet.
Mr. STEVE BUSCEMI (Actor): And he is just filled with rage at what he's witnessing. I mean, the atrocities are like nothing I've ever read about.
It would have been easy for Dr. Wilson and for the rest who helped create the safety zone to flee for their lives because their lives were in danger every day. And they had families. But they stayed, and their work mattered, and they were able to save thousands and thousands of lives.
DOWELL: Initially, Buscemi's character is skeptical of John Rabe's sincerity.
(Soundbite of film, "John Rabe")
Mr. BUSCEMI: (As Dr. Robert Wilson) That's fantastic, a corrupt Chinese general on as a Nazi. You have to hand it to the Germans, they exploit the country, make a mint, then they get a medal for it.
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) (Speaking foreign language).
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. BUSCEMI: (As Dr. Wilson) Hero of the Chinese people.
DOWELL: Buscemi came to the project close to the start of shooting in October 2007. Director Florian Gallenberger had already been working on the film for nearly three years, trying to negotiate his way through various Chinese ministries to get permits to shoot his film in China.
Gallenberger, who won an Academy Award for his 2000 short film "Quiero Ser," was repeatedly delayed by politics, even a joint Chinese-Japanese business venture. Then a history textbook for schools was adopted in Japan that omitted any mention of the Nanjing massacre.
Mr. GALLENBERGER: Suddenly we were told: Okay, now you can go on with your project because they really offended us with this schoolbook. So we realized that we are not just making a film on a historical thing, but this historical subject is so alive and is so still giving trouble to them that we realized that the film will have a big significance to both Japanese and Chinese, of course.
DOWELL: When Gallenberger's film opened in China, it was the biggest release ever for a German film outside Germany. But the film has not been seen in Japan, where the facts of the Nanjing Massacre, including the number of victims, are still hotly debated.
Mr. GALLENBERGER: In Japan, the film has not been screened because I was told it's banned. But I don't think it's banned. It's just that no distributor really has the guts to take it.
DOWELL: One Japanese distributor showed some interest, Gallenberger says, on the condition that the filmmaker cut out the figure of Prince Asaka, who commanded the Japanese army in Nanjing. Gallenberger refused.
DOWELL: The film ends with Rabe's exit from Nanjing in early 1938. He returned to Germany, was arrested by the Gestapo and forbidden to speak of the massacre. He died in 1950 in obscurity until his China diaries were rediscovered by the late Iris Chang, doing research for her bestseller "The Rape of Nanking." They sparked a resurgence of interest in Rabe.
What interested Gallenberger was how ordinary the man was.
Mr. GALLENBERGER: He was not, like, this kind of superhero type who in the situation that he got in, suddenly became more and more brave and more and more daring and more and more ready to risk his life for his values. And I think that's what really interested me, to tell the journey of a normal, average person who discovers his own greatness because that's a potential that's probably, you know, within all of us.
DOWELL: John Rabe returned to Nanjing, in a way. All that remained at his Berlin gravesite, his tombstone, now rests in a place of honor in the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall.
For NPR News, this is Pat Dowell.
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