"John Rabe": An old-fashioned, manipulative epic

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The German actor Ulrich Tukur brings an understated intensity and psychological depth to the title role of “John Rabe,” a sweeping historical film that exalts a largely unsung real-life hero who risked his life to do the right thing. Rabe, a Nazi German industrialist stationed in China, is credited with saving the lives of more than 200,000 Chinese during the infamous 1937 massacre in Nanking (now Nanjing) in the second Sino-Japanese war. In a matter of weeks, the Japanese slaughtered at least 200,000 civilians and prisoners of war and committed mass rape.

The German director Florian Gallenberger has made Rabe the central figure in an old-fashioned historical epic that covers much of the same territory as the 2007 documentary “Nanking,” in which Rabe (pronounced RAH-bay) is mentioned. Because its hero was a “good Nazi” who courageously acted on his humanitarian impulses, “John Rabe” has a lot in common with “Schindler’s List.” But despite its gruesome scenes of hundreds of Chinese prisoners of war being lined up and executed and its ostentatious shots of severed heads, the movie is less than indelible....

Moody and diabetic, Rabe initially clashes with Robert Wilson (Steve Buscemi), a cynical American doctor on the committee who despises Rabe’s Nazi associations. But by the end of a drunken evening together, they are both singing the “Colonel Bogey March” with scabrous anti-Hitler lyrics.

The movie spends considerable time on the committee’s divisive internal politics. Over Rabe’s objections, Valérie Duprès (Anne Consigny), who runs a girls school in the safety zone, secretly violates the agreement with the Japanese and hides Chinese soldiers in her school. The Japanese, who continually threaten to override the pact, are itching for an excuse to storm the safety zone....

From the outset of “John Rabe” you are uncomfortably aware of watching a wartime melodrama that, despite its honorable intentions, will throw in any emotional ploy to keep you engaged.

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