Directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman
With readings by Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemingway,
Stephen Dorff, Jurgen Prochnow and Mark Valley
Shortly before World War II officially began, the Japanese army invaded China, sacking Shanghai before setting its sights on the country's capitol, Nanking. The army took the city in December 1937 and set in motion an epic series of atrocities. These often-overlooked events were made infamous by Iris Chang in her 1997 nonfiction account The Rape of Nanking, which is the basis of Nanking, the documentary by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman.
Nanking isn't for the faint of heart, or stomach, as the sheer volume of suffering is almost impossible to comprehend. According to the filmmakers, roughly 200,000 Chinese prisoners of war and civilians were executed outside Nanking in the first month of the occupation, and Japanese soldiers reportedly raped more than 20,000 civilian women in their first six weeks in the city, eventually committing nearly 80,000 rapes. The numbers are staggering.
The filmmakers tell the story three ways. The first is footage from the occupation, which is harrowing in and of itself.
The second, however, is the most powerful—interviews with both survivors and perpetrators, which are terribly wrenching to watch. Nothing quite compares to an elderly man breaking down at the memory of his mother's murder, or another man describing what soldiers did to his teenage sister, or an 80-something-year-old woman relating her own victimization, as a child, and her grandfather's anguish at being unable to prevent it. Additionally, there are interviews with former Japanese soldiers who explain how they went about gang-raping women, or the methodology they used to execute, literally, thousands of bound and helpless men. These people are all nearing the ends of their lives, but those moments are still crystal clear and excruciating for all of them.
The directors also use an odd device to tell the story of Westerners who remained in Nanking. Though almost all non-Chinese left the city as the Japanese approached, a group of more than 20 foreigners, comprising primarily American missionaries and doctors and a German businessman with Nazi leanings, formed a committee and set up a safety zone within the city walls. Through what must have been tireless and extraordinary efforts, they collectively protected more than a quarter of a million Chinese. The story of the Nanking atrocities cannot be told without telling their stories, but since all of them are long dead, the filmmakers have actors read letters, journals and written accounts from them.
The setting is that of a staged reading, and it's occasionally off-putting because though the story of Bob Wilson, the only surgeon left within the city's walls during the occupation, is amazing, it's hard to get past the fact that it's Woody Harrelson reading his words. And people don't write like they talk, so the readings at times sound too polished. But as the film progresses, it gets easier to identify the likes of Muriel Hemingway as Minnie Vautrin, a missionary who ran a school for girls, or Jürgen Prochnow as John Rabe, the German chair of the committee, whose later efforts to convince the German authorities and Hitler to hold the Japanese accountable led to his arrest and interrogation by the Gestapo. It's tough to hear and see so much pain, but it's both inspirational and instructive to learn about people who put themselves on the line for others, and who found themselves in doing so.
Nanking is a very hard film to watch. It's not a dinner-and-a-movie movie. But it's important because it brings historical significance to events that we would rather forget; and controversy aside—the Japanese government generally denies the extent of the atrocities—we shouldn't forget. What happened in Nanjing (as the city is known today) continues to occur in other places around the globe. The world didn't step up and stop what happened in 1937 in China, or in Europe a few years later, or in Rwanda in 1994, and we aren't doing anything today in Darfur.
Nanking isn't a perfect film, by any means, and with any luck it won't be the definitive cinematic account of the events of 1937, but perhaps it will serve as an important history lesson for some of us. After all, we humans have a bad habit of not learning from our mistakes.
View the Nanking movie trailer here.