Movie Review: Nanking

After having lunch by myself at Urban Solace on Tuesday, I decided to do something else I’ve never done alone – go see a movie in the theater. I had a free ticket to see Nanking at the Ken Cinema and not much free time during the rest of the week, so after the Grand Ole Party instore at M-Theory, I headed over to Kensington to catch the 7:15 showing of the movie.

It was the type of movie that I’m glad I went to alone. There was really nothing to be said to anyone during the movie, no comments that could be uttered to properly explain what the movie made me feel. I’m sure if I had gone with someone, I would have ended up gripping his or her hand tightly at times.

I’ll admit that my knowledge of the Nanking Massacre previous to the movie was quite lacking. I don’t remember learning about it in high school history classes. I’m sure it was covered by some of the more advanced history classes I could have taken, but I had my hands full with advanced math and science classes at that point in my life.

As a historical documentary film, Nanking excels, but through unconventional methods. Actors are used to portray those who actually lived through the atrocity, but not by recreating scenes. Instead, they stare directly into the camera, reading first-hand accounts from Westerners who played a crucial part in saving some of the poor populace of the city. These accounts are given alongside testimonies from actual survivors who are still living today, and both are interspersed with archival footage and photographs.

The absolute horrors committed upon human beings are indisputable, and at many moments I was left emotionally exhausted by the evidence of how awful humans can be to each other. It hit me almost as hard as visiting the Dachau concentration camp in Germany did. There it was seeing photographs of piles of shoes, collected from the dead, alongside the cremation ovens. In Nanking, it was hearing accounts from survivors of seeing their parents murdered in front of them. It was hearing a first-hand account of a missionary questioning his belief in God in light of the massacre. It was actually seeing bits of John MaGee’s 16mm film showing victims and their wounds – the same video that was later used to educate the rest of the world on what was happening there.

But at the same time, there was also a strange sense of pride garnered in me by the Westerners who decided to stick it out in Nanking and help the poor who had no means to flee from the city before it was taken. Westerners who were living there at the time and considered it home, but who had the means to flee and chose not to. I read somewhere that around 22 Westerners were in the city when the Japanese overtook it; of these, 15 banded together to form a Safety Zone which housed many of the people left in the city. These men and women had no weapons and no power to stop the Japanese army from doing whatever they wanted to the survivors of the initial attack; but somehow they managed to keep the Japanese at bay, for the most part.

Of these Westerners, the two that stuck out most in my mind were German (and Nazi) John Rabe and American Minnie Vautrin. Rabe speaks highly of Hitler in his accounts while denouncing the crimes of the Japanese – a shocking reminder that not all Nazis were evil people. I am glad that the film did not try to gloss over that fact – it made the story even stronger. Minne Vautrin was responsible for saving a lot of the women in Nanking, and for trying to prevent the Japanese soldiers from entering the Safety Zone at will to find women to rape.

Sadly, even though these two figures were portrayed as the strongest people during the Nanking Massacre, they both suffered unfortunate fates afterwards. Rabe returned to Germany, where he was commanded to never mention the massacre again. Penniless late in life, he was supported partly by the Chinese government for his role in Nanking. He is now buried there. Minnie Vautrim suffered a nervous breakdown three years after the massacre, returned to the States, and committed suicide shortly thereafter. The tragedy of the Nanking massacre continued far past the six weeks of the massacre itself. It boggles my mind that there are survivors that lived long lives after witnessing such atrocity – almost as much as it boggles my mind that there are people who deny that it even happened.