Intimate War Doc Highlights Horror and Redemption

    {grate 3} A cinematic memorial dedicated to the altruism of American
    missionaries and Nazi businessmen nearly 70 years ago, the documentary “Nanking
    recounts the grave World War II tragedy of the Japanese attack on Chinese soil.
    Directed by Academy Award winners Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, the film
    proclaims the saintly valediction of the few at odds with the meteoric
    devastation of wartime amorality.

    After the Japanese invasion, the then-Chinese capital was
    declared a virtual open city — that is, chaos ran rampant. The aforementioned
    missionaries and businessmen, galvanized by the horrors of the city, erected a
    refugee camp for those too poor to buy their way out. This safety zone was
    anchored by a trinity of well-lit places — Bob Wilson’s hospital, Minnie Vautrin’s
    women’s college and John Rabe’s residence — and fortified in large part because
    of the warding color of the caretakers’ skin. Whether the refugees were hounded
    by the Japanese infantry or severed from their families, they were able to find
    sanctuary in this forbidden two-mile stretch of city.

    The letters and diary entries of those who set up the zone
    are personalized by actors Woody Harrelson as Bob Wilson, Mariel Hemingway as
    Minnie Vautrin and Jurgen Prochnow as John Rabe — not in stereotypical voiceover,
    but rather on-screen interviews in real-life personas.

    Aside from the actors, much of the film’s pathos comes from
    the testimonies of now-elderly witnesses of the rape of Nanking,
    who have spent their lives tattoed with sanguine childhood memories of seeing
    their parents and younger siblings savagely murdered.

    Mixing these fictional accounts of reality with the same
    integrity as its other, factual stories, the documentary illuminates the horror
    of the Asiatic Holocaust, previously marginalized by the Euro-centricity of the
    traditional World War II narrative.

    The interwoven interviews coalesce with the black-and-white
    footage of planes’ aerial acrobatics in dogfights, the skeletal frames of
    buildings and the gory effects of bayonet wounds. For months, warplanes pelted
    the city into a prolonged demise until the capital resembled the black-and-blue
    bruises of its entrapped citizens. Thankfully, however, the film is not overly
    dependent on its repugnant reality, but emphasizes the heroic story of its noble
    band, too respectful to mar their portrayal by political propaganda.

    As one missionary notes, the salvation of Nanking
    was not reliant on national guards or national gods, but sprang from the
    compassion of those willing to sacrifice themselves for what is right.
    Venerating these virutous saints, Guttentag and Sturman excavate the historical
    path to Nanking and follow it through; the only aspects
    that are in their control are the editing and acting, revealing a modest level
    of craftsmanship in both areas.

    The film isn’t grand or exaggerated, but then again, neither
    are the long-forgotten actions of those honored.

    Ending on the current visage of Nanking
    recuperated in bandaged civic garb, we are able to recognize the city for what
    it once was. No longer scarred by Japanese occupation, it has been given new
    life that only sanctuaries are capable of providing in endangered hours. And a
    footnote of World War II history has been given the chapter and applause it
    rightly deserves.

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