Director: Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman Time: 89 minutes. Color/B&W.
Think of this flick as a documentary variation on Schindler’s List set in 1937 China. Directed by the pair who helmed Twin Towers, the Oscar-winning documentary short, Nanking is visually textured, haunting, nauseating, and compelling. It melds incredible, if often grotesquely disturbing, archival footage and stills; candid, heartbreaking interviews with both Chinese and Japanese survivors; and a moving stage reading where Hollywood stars somberly render dark, frightening, and stalwart words from the letters and diaries of foreign eyewitnesses.
It’s mid-November 1937: the Japanese have attacked Shanghai, and via sketchy reports of Chinese refugees and soldiers fleeing the desperate front, word filters back to the capital, Nanking, of the Japanese rampage that history acknowledges (although the Japanese still don’t). The Rape of Nanking, one of the most disgusting, inhumane episodes in a war relentlessly stippled with mind-numbing inhumanity and grisly carnage, commences one month later. But not before seven foreigners—clergymen, a doctor, university professors, and a German executive of Siemens—risk their lives and agree, in the face of Western indifference and Japanese contempt, to set up a Safety Zone in two square miles of Nanking. There they will house, and hopefully save, as many Chinese, especially women and children, as possible from the military marauders whom the Chinese simply call “devils.” The Siemens executive, a devoted Nazi, even believes that once Hitler is informed of the wretched situation, he will intervene and stop it.
From there, the movie’s historical events spiral downward into a morass where the Japanese loot and destroy while executing mass murders and endless rapes. Facing them off requires enormous personal courage, which the foreigners somehow continue to find as their backs, physically and morally, are pressed to the wall. Ultimately they persevere and save some two hundred thousand Chinese; at least that many disappear.
The movie was born in 2005, when AOL vice-chairman Ted Leonsis read author Iris Chang’s obituary. Chang’s The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, on which the film is based, was the bloodbath’s first book-length English-language nonfiction treatment, and it decries the Japanese military’s use of Nanking to train their troops to slaughter civilians—a tack replicated throughout the war. Her searing and successful work made Chang the spokesperson for Chinese survivors and the leader of a crusade to get the Japanese government to acknowledge wartime atrocities. Depression, incited by this and by research for a project on the Bataan Death March, led to Chang’s suicide at age thirty-six. Nanking stunningly translates Chang’s legacy onto film, just in time to commemorate the atrocity’s seventieth anniversary by debuting at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and opening across the country this spring.
Originally published in the July 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.