By 1937, German businessman John Rabe had spent three decades establishing a beachhead for the Siemens Company in Nanking, China, where his branch made significant inroads in giving the area an energy infrastructure. Just before he would have handed over the branch to his successor and headed back to Berlin, however, Japanese warplanes laid waste to large swaths of the city, and in the days that followed, the Imperial Army followed up by systematically brutalizing and killing the Chinese civilian population. Deciding to stay in Nanking leaves Rabe in a difficult spot: How much loyalty does he show toward the motherland, which has aligned itself with Japan under Hitler’s rule, and what should he do, if anything, to help other foreign leaders protect the Chinese people he’d worked with for so long?
The basic contours of Rabe’s story suggests Schindler’s List: Far East Edition, and Florian Gallenberger’s workmanlike John Rabe biopic does little to disabuse viewers of the notion. Here again is a movie about a successful, apolitical German businessman whose slumbering conscience is awoken by Nazi-sponsored atrocities, and who risks his hide protecting legions of targeted people. But in spite of a subtle performance by Ulrich Tukur in the eponymous role, Gallenberger’s film feels labored and emotionally disengaged, an autumn-hued history lesson that’s as studiously reserved as its steel-spined subject. Rabe plays his emotions close to the vest, but Gallenberger never fully accesses the conflict between his lingering nationalism and his prevailing sense of justice.
As an irritable American doctor who initially questions Rabe’s motives, Steve Buscemi gives the film a boost, if only by being a persistent thorn in the hero’s side. And Gallenberger does well to integrate horrifying newsreel footage of the massacre to support his more restrained historical rendering. But John Rabe suffers from the clunky obviousness of many lavishly appointed war biopics, the sort that falls back on blunt ironies like Rabe naïvely counting on Hitler to put a stop to all the mass execution. Reduced to obscurity after the war, Rabe deserves to be remembered for his role in shielding hundreds of thousands in a “safety zone” on company grounds. But the film will help little in securing his legacy.