German Films Delve into Difficult History

Roundup: Pop Culture & the Arts ... Movies, Documentaries and Museum Exhibits

He looks anxiously at the sky, watching the low-flying fighter planes drop their bombs into the fleeing crowd. It is December 1937, and German businessman John Rabe, the representative of the Siemens Group in the eastern Chinese city of Nanking, is witnessing Japanese fighter pilots as they attack the company's facility there, killing helpless civilians.

In that moment of despair, he suddenly has an idea. Rabe, a long-standing member of the Nazi Party, quickly orders his workers to unfurl an enormous swastika flag that the party had sent to him in China. Then Rabe and large numbers of Chinese crouch under the flag. The ruse works, and the Japanese, allied with the Germans, call off the attack.

The film "John Rabe," a biography of the "good German of Nanking," tells the story of a man who was born in Hamburg in 1882 and is still revered as a national hero in China today. Director Florian Gallenberger, 38, paints a jarring image which is no less bizarre for all of its historical accuracy: The swastika, a symbol of Nazi barbarity, is used to save the lives of innocent people.

The German-Chinese-French co-production, which cost €15 million ($20 million) to make, opened in German theaters this week. The film dives head first into sensitive territory. It is a heroic epic about a Nazi, albeit not a particularly fanatical one, who, driven by circumstance, reluctantly ends up saving the lives of innocent citizens. This is the sort of subject only American directors have taken on in the past, most notably with Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winning film "Schindler's List" in 1993. In German movie theaters, however, the concept of the "good Nazi" has always been taboo.

But now German directors, encouraged by the success of "Valkyrie," a drama about would-be Hitler assassin Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, starring Tom Cruise, are discovering German moviegoers' interest in ambivalent national heroes. Niama, a German production company, is working on a film about Robert Bosch, who lived from 1861 to 1942. The industrialist from the southwestern German region of Swabia developed various products, including the magnetic fuse, which was used in torpedoes and mines in World War II. But during the Third Reich Bosch supported the liberal resistance movement against Hitler, partly with revenues from the defense industry.

Several films about German icons have already been shot or are in planning. They include film biographies, or biopics, about German abbess Hildegard von Bingen, writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, theologian and philosopher Albert Schweitzer and Romy Schneider. The lives of famous Germans, relegated to the television domain until now (including the 2009 TV series "Krupp"), are now being portrayed on the silver screen. Suddenly prominent historical figures are reappearing in larger-than-life form, figures admired for their good works and their role in ordinary German life...

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