Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman’s “Nanking” documents an oft-neglected history of mistreatment and heroism. While many angles of the Holocaust have been well documented, few films (or public schools) discuss the atrocities that Japan committed against the Chinese during the same time period.
The documentary focuses on the aftermath of Japan’s invasion of Nanking, when several American and European doctors, missionaries and humanitarians in the area attempted to protect the occupied people from the brutal and cruel Japanese military.
A wealth of archival footage, much of it filmed in secrecy and smuggled out, compliments a combination of re-enacted and genuine interviews with survivors, who were young children during the occupation. To give the perspective of the deceased, the film uses actors including Woody Harelson, Mariel Hemingway and Jürgen Prochnow to deliver excerpts from their letters, journals and other documentation.
While at times the film begins to feel like a laundry list of bad deeds, the first-person accounts pack a wallop. A scene in which a man describes the violent killing of his mother and baby brother is particularly astonishing. (The aesthetic choice of dissolves over jump-cuts to bridge the sequence and keep on the man’s face, however, is the wrong one.)
The most intriguing of the characters is John Rabe (Prochnow), a German who fully believes that Hitler and his government would come to the aid of the Chinese if they knew what way going on. His Nazi flag, like the American flag, serves as protection from the soldiers, but more important is his faith that his own government isn’t engaging in similar cruelty. His story serves as a reminder that people can delude themselves when seeing events from a distance. Viewed up close, we do while watching “Nanking,” it’s harder to ignore the truth.