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Film on German hero in China seen stirring debate

world Updated: Feb 08, 2009 20:10 IST
Erik Kirschbaum
Highlight Story

The director of a new film about an unsung German engineer who helped save 200,000 Chinese in Nanjing from Japanese troops said he hoped it would spark debate and help Japan come to terms with its past.

Florian Gallenberger, whose film "John Rabe" is based on a true story of the courage of a Siemens executive during the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, told Reuters his film could also, belatedly, shed light on Rabe's long-overlooked heroism.

"We're fully aware the film could be explosive in Japan," said Gallenberger, whose native Germany has also faced sometimes turbulent reflection on its Nazi past in the wake of films on the Holocaust and Hitler decades later.

"It's an extremely controversial subject in Japan and there are fears there could be severe repercussions. I hope the film won't be silenced in Japan. I'd very much hope this film could help get an opening-up of discussion going in Japan."

Rabe was an electrical equipment executive in Nanjing, then the national capital of China.

The six-week wave of killing by Japanese soldiers after Nanjing fell was among the bloodiest episodes of Japan's invasion of China. Chinese accounts say 300,000 were killed.

But some conservative Japanese politicians and scholars deny a massacre took place. It remains a heated political issue in Japan. An allied tribunal put the death toll at about 142,000.

For China, how Japan remembers the "Rape of Nanking" -- as the city was then called in English -- has become a test of how contrite its neighbour is about its occupation of much of the country from the 1930s up to 1945.

SAFETY ZONE

In 1937, Rabe was head of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone and helped save Chinese lives by setting up the 7-sq-km zone where about 200,000 people were sheltered.

Rabe had worked in China for Siemens for 30 years and was about to return to the headquarters in Berlin when the invasion began. As Germany and Japan were allies, Rabe used his Nazi party membership and did all he could to protect the civilians.

Rabe was arrested by the Gestapo upon his return to Berlin in 1938 for collaborating with the Chinese. After World War Two, the Allies at first refused to de-Nazify him. He died in Berlin in 1950 in poverty and forgotten but remained a hero in China.

"I have to admit to my great shame that before starting this project I didn't know anything about John Rabe either," Gallenberger said after his film's well-received world premiere at the Berlin film festival.

The German-Chinese co-production, in English and German, features Ulrich Tukur ("The Lives of Others") in the title role and American actor Steve Buscemi as a U.S. doctor in the city.

Gallenberger, whose film cost about 18 million euros to make, said there have been other films made about Rabe in China. But because Rabe's story was misused for propaganda purposes, the world never really took notice before.

Now, Gallenberger said, the world is ripe for the story of the man sometimes called "the Oskar Schindler of China", a reference to the industrialist credited with saving 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust.

"It's taken more than 70 years for John Rabe to get the recognition he deserves," he said.

"It was our duty to take a neutral view, not a Japanese nor a Chinese viewpoint, and I believe we've accomplished that."