With the exception of films like the documentary IN THE NAME OF THE EMPEROR and the exploitative BLACK SUN, and the late Iris Chang's acclaimed book The Rape of Nanking, surprisingly scant attention has been devoted to the brutal 1937 destruction of the then Chinese capital of Nanking by the Japanese occupiers. An conservatively estimated 250,000 Chinese civilians of all ages were murdered along side Chinese soldiers, and many after have been subjected to horrifying tortures. Rape and sexual mutilation were commonplace. The reasons for the savagery and the subsequent silence surrounding the slaughter are complex and still sensitive -- Japan has yet to acknowledge the full extent of the massacre -- and while this handsomely produced documentary by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman offers few explanations, the unflinching details and the first-hand, on-camera accounts of survivors make it an important contribution to a historical record that, tragically, is still far from complete.
As the film points out, what made the so-called Rape of Nanking unique was the number of foreign witnesses. By 1937, hundreds of westerners lived and worked within the walls of the ancient city, and while most left after the Japanese invaders took Shanghai and the ferocious air bombing of their next target -- Nanking -- began in preparation for a march on the city, 22 expatriates remained behind to bear witness. Chief among them were Minnie Vautrin, a Christian missionary who served as the chairman of Ginling women's college; Bob Wilson, a Harvard-educated doctor and the only surgeon left in the city; George A. Fitch, a priest who kept a vivid account of the atrocities in his diary; John Magee, an Episcopal minister who managed to capture actual footage of the horror with his 16mm camera; and John Rabe, a German businessman and proud, swastika waving member of the Nazi party who nevertheless saved hundreds of Chinese lives. Using a cast of actors that includes Mariel Hemingway, Jurgen Prochnow, Woody Harrelson and Stephen Dorff, to read from the letters and journal entries of the westerners -- as well as a few recollections of a Japanese soldier in Nanking -- Guttentag and Sturman chronicle the unfolding nightmare, from the fall of Shanghai and the senseless, months-long bombing campaign against Nanking to the efforts to create an international safety zone within the city and the bloodbath that ensued once the Japanese troops breached the city walls. And, of course, the rape and insane slaughter that followed. The dramatic readings are potent, but nothing can compare to the first-hand memories of the survivors who recall the total destruction and their own brutalization with excruciating, heart-rending detail. Stout hearts and strong stomachs are required. What Guttentag and Sturman gain in dramatic immediacy, however, they lose when it comes to historical context, and the chance to offer insight into why such things occur in the first place -- and continue to happen today -- is lost. leave a comment --Ken Fox