One thing is for certain: There won’t be a more powerful, horrific or inspiring film this year than Nanking. In 1937, Japan’s full-scale invasion of China included massive air raids on what was then that country’s capital. By December 13, the Japanese had defeated the Chinese army and the six weeks which followed came to be known as “the rape of Nanking” for the burning and looting of the city, as well as some 200,000 murders of civilians and prisoners of war, and 20,000 violations of women. This horrendous episode is, shamefully, too little known today, and it is to the profound credit of the filmmakers that it is being brought to light again today.
Nanking had its genesis when producer Ted Leonsis, vice chairman of AOL, saw a newspaper obituary of Iris Chang, who wrote the acclaimed book The Rape of Nanking and who committed suicide in 2005. After reading her account, he became determined to make a film about a subject he’d been ignorant of, and hired Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman to write and direct it. Intense research followed, and the filmmakers decided to structure their film around a staged reading by actors portraying various real-life characters and voicing their firsthand accounts of the events found in letters and diaries. Actual photographs and film footage from 1937 are used, some shot clandestinely by George Fitch, a missionary who smuggled the footage out of China in the hopes of convincing an ignorant, indifferent world to help.
John Getz portrays Fitch in the film and, like all the other actors—Woody Harrelson as Bob Wilson, a missionary who was the only surgeon remaining in war-torn Nanking; Jurgen Prochnow as John Rabe, a Nazi party member who tried to stop the violence and sheltered 650 Chinese civilians on his estate; Stephen Dorff as Lewis Smythe, a missionary teacher—is impressively committed and unhistrionic. Mariel Hemingway appears as the incredibly courageous Minnie Vautrin, the chairman of Nanking’s Ginling College, who, along with the aforementioned, formed the Safety Zone Committee, which maintained an area of the city where people could seek refuge. Although the life-saving proposal they sent to the Japanese government was rejected, somehow their army respected the Zone’s boundaries, until…
The literal rape of Nanking began in earnest when Japanese soldiers ruthlessly sought out female victims who were rounded up, raped and then often bayoneted to death. For these horrors, we have firsthand, surviving Chinese witnesses to recount memories which still sear the brain. Hearing of a seven-year-old girl being hacked completely in two, or a dying mother nursing her baby which had been speared by a bayonet, you realize that it can be more than enough sometimes to tell, rather than show, a thing onscreen. (There were understandable audience moans at the screening I attended.)
This documentary should be seen by everyone, along with Christine Choy’s highly worthy 1998 documentary In the Name of the Emperor, but I only wish more had been made of the unbelievable, ongoing ignorance and denial about these events on the part of many Japanese today. The history in school textbooks has been rewritten, calling the Rape of Nanking an “incident,” and the former Prime Minister made pilgrimages to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, in which 14 war criminals are honored. This infuriating historical denial is tantamount to that given the plight of the thousands of “comfort women” rounded up from all over Asia and forced into prostitution for Japanese soldiers. In this 70th anniversary year of Nanking’s invasion, a joint committee of Chinese and Japanese government-appointed historians will convene to attempt to agree on a common version of war events, and one can only hope that the bitter truth will finally emerge for all to see.