Movie Reviews - 2009 postsSaturday February 07, 2015
Movie Review: Nowhere Boy (2009)
I kept waiting for it. Aunt Mimi’s line. One of the most famous in rock ‘n’ roll history. All together now:
The guitar’s all right, John, but you’ll never make a living from it.
The question is when. Will she say it after John's been suspended from school and she punishes him by selling his guitar? Nope. OK, what about after he buys it back again? Or when he's just playing it too loudly? Hey, maybe they’ll end with it! That would make sense. Good last line, since we know he’ll not only make a living with it, he’ll make history with it. But they don’t end that way, either. They end with John (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) telling Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) that he’s off to Hamburg with the lads and he’ll call her when he arrives. Then he’s out the door and down the street, and the soundtrack picks up on John Lennon’s “Mother” (“You had me/ But I never had you”), and ... credits.
Screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh (“Control”) and director Sam Taylor-Wood get a lot right, but I don’t know how they could’ve missed that one.
Actually they get a lot wrong, too.
Doesn’t have a point of view
Start with Paul. Please.
I like Thomas Brodie-Sangster. I liked him in “Love Actually” and “Game of Thrones.” He’s a good young actor. Cute, too. But he’s kind of spooky cute, while Paul was the epitome of cute: puppy-dog eyes, rosebud lips, a bit of an overbite. Plus Brodie-Sangster’s Paul is much too slight next to Taylor-Johnson’s John. Brodie-Sanster is actually a month older than Taylor-Johnson but he looks about five years younger. Paul was the most accomplished singer of the group, and they make him seem the least here. They make George (Sam Bell) seem more confident and outgoing than Paul. George.
But they get a lot right: Paul meeting John after a Quarrymen (skiffle) concert and impressing everyone because he knows the music and lyrics to Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock.” George doing something similar on the back of the bus. They also do their best to make such moments seem ordinary rather than freighted with meaning. They’re not triumphant; they’re just another day.
Taylor-Johnson is a good actor, and there are times, particularly once he begins wearing the Clark Kent glasses with the leather jacket, where, boy, he looks a lot like John in that period: the rock ‘n’ roll John. At the same time, he won’t make anyone forget Ian Hart. And don’t they make him too nice for much of the movie? John was a tough SOB, and often a prick, and you get a bit of that at the end. You get the silly drawings and the silly wordplay (later described as “Joycean” by reviewers around the world), and you get a reference to Stu, as in Sutcliffe, John’s art student friend who died of a brain aneuryism in 1962. There’s a real effort to be historically accurate to John’s life in the years between 1955 and 1960. But too much is missing.
The movie is essentially a battle for John’s soul, or some such, between two sisters—the rowdy biological mother and the strict, steadfast aunt who raised him—and the big reveal is how and why Mimi wound up caring for him back in the early '40s, which is hardly a reveal at all. The movie’s great lesson is, “There’s just no point hating someone you love,” which is spoken by an 18-year-old John, wise before his years, but that wasn’t him. Not then anyway.
The real winner in the battle for John? Director Sam Taylor-Wood, who wound up marrying her leading man, 23 years her junior, and changing her name to Sam Taylor-Johnson. She's now directing “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
Knows not where it’s going to
To be fair, I would’ve killed for this movie 35 years ago. I was latching onto anything Beatlesish back then. Classmates were all into REO Speedwagon or the Knack, and I was all about the Beatles. I remember how excited I was when “The Birth of the Beatles” came to TV one Friday night. My first SIFF movie was “The Hours and Times,” a short, almost experimental film positing what might’ve happened between John and Brian Epstein during their Barcelona trip in ’63, and I saw “Backbeat,” a 1994 birth movie focusing on Stu Sutcliffe, in the theaters.
They're still not getting it right. “Nowhere Boy” is another forgettable movie about our most unforgettable band.
Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes (2009)
WARNING: THE SPOILERS ARE AFOOT
What if the character ‘Sherlock Holmes’ had been an original 21st-century creation of this film—of Guy Ritchie and Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg and (whew) Lion Wigram, as well as Robert Downey, Jr., of course—instead of a 19th-century creation of Sir Athur Conan Doyle? How well would the movie have done with the critics and how well at the box office and how well with moviegoers after they’d plunked down their $10 plus and had a day, a week, a month, a year to mull it over?
I was mulling this over because, after two years of a self-imposed embargo, and as prep for the sequel, I finally watched “Sherlock Holmes” and for the most part enjoyed myself. It’s well art-directed, Downey, Jr. and Jude Law (Dr. Watson) have great chemistry, Rachel McAdams (Irene Adler) is always a pleasure, and the movie zips. It zips too much for me, of course, and for top critics, whose approval rating wound up at 56% on Rotten Tomatoes, but not too much for moviegoers in general, who spent $209 million on it in the U.S., $524 million worldwide, and who, having mulled it over, have given it a 7.5 rating (out of 10) on IMDb.com—akin, among Downey’s work, to “Wonder Boys,” and better than “Chaplin” (7.3) and “The Soloist” (6.7).
So what would’ve happened if this thing called “Sherlock Holmes” had been an original creation? I think its box office would’ve dropped, but not astronomically (no name recognition but everyone likes a roller coaster ride), its IMDb numbers would gone up (to 7.7 or possibly higher), because its top critics ratings at Rotten Tomatoes would’ve soared. I think the critics would’ve loved it.
“A cerebral roller-coaster ride!”
Christian Science Monitor
“A brilliant throwback to the 19th-century battle between magic and science!”
New York Magazine
“In Sherlock Holmes, we have the first Asperger’s detective.”
The New York Times
But we really can’t play that game. Sherlock Holmes has been an icon for more than a century. You can’t just wipe that away. As much as they tried.
How much did they try? Ritchie, a Brit, is the first man to turn Sherlock Holmes into both an American and a Hollywood action hero.
The real Sherlock Holmes used his mind to solve crimes and mysteries. This one uses his mind, yes, but just as often, maybe more often, his fists. In the opening scene, as a female sacrifice writhes on a table (sexy!), Holmes and Watson take on a roomful of baddies as if they’re Jackie Chan and Jet Li.
The real Sherlock Holmes used the power of deductive reasoning to solve crimes, as does this one. But in the original stories, the evidence was there for us if we wanted to put it together ourselves. We rarely could. (Or I rarely could.) When Holmes did, however, we almost always went, “Of course!” Here, the evidence by which things are deduced is simply told to us after they’ve been deduced. Zip, zip, zip, zip. Get a move on. What’s that? You want to try to solve it? Just munch your popcorn, Einstein. Roller coaster’s pulling out of the station.
The real Sherlock Holmes was a cocaine user and violinist. He compared the brain to an attic—there’s only so much room, so you’d better be careful that what you put up there doesn’t crowd out worthier stuff. He had a smarter brother, Mycroft, and a nemesis, Prof. Moriarty, and a partner, Dr. Watson, who was sharp but not as sharp as Holmes, and he had informants, street kids, called the Baker Street Irregulars. He was a solitary man but found Watson’s help “invaluable”—which, to my 12-year-old ears, associating the prefix “in” with “the opposite of” (ex: “inconceivable”), sounded like the gravest insult when it was really his greatest compliment. He smoked a pipe. He wore a deerstalker cap.
This one? His plucks his violin, bowless, and smokes a pipe, ocassionally, and mentions Mycroft and sniffs some questionable substances. But cocaine and the attic aren’t mentioned, the deerstalker hat isn’t worn, and holy crap is he ever needy. The main personal tension within the film is his pain over Dr. Watson’s impending marriage to Mary (Kelly Reilly). He needs Watson with him whenever the game’s afoot. You get the feeling Irene Adler, Holmes’ love interest, shows up not only because it’s the movies and you need a girl but to quiet suspicions that Holmes might be gay.
My favorite bit was early on. Holmes is in a restaurant waiting for Watson and Mary. The other patrons talk, their cutlery clinks, and the noises intensify until it becomes almost unbearable for Holmes. It seems like Asperger’s. That would’ve been an interesting direction to go in. Of course it would’ve been less lucrative so they dropped it. Too bad. It would make sense of his seclusions. The world is too much with him. The acute senses that help him solve crimes also make it difficult to live in the world.
To the plot! Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong, who went on to play every villain in every movie made since) is the illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Rotheram (James Fox), head of a Freemasons-like secret society. Blackwood is responsible for the murder of several women—all writhing, one assumes—captured by Holmes, sentenced to death. But there’s something steely and menacing about him even behind bars or with the hangman’s noose around his neck. A week later, someone sees him rise from the dead. Then he’s killing again—not least his biological father.
Turns out he uses science and chemicals and whatnot (Holmes' wheelhouse) to appear magical and foster fear. He’s a 19th century terrorist. His goal is to take over Parliament and then—perhaps to ensure American audience interest—to reclaim Britain’s former colony across the pond. Amid a lot of running, fighting, explosions, and sniffing substances on his fingertips, Holmes stops him.
All the screenwriters mentioned above earned their pay; we get some fun stuff. There’s a giant Frenchman, Dredger (Robert Maillet), the “Jaws” of his day, whom Holmes must battle twice, and with whom he has the following exchange after Holmes’ weapon proves ineffective:
Dredger: Cours, lapin, cours. (Run, rabbit, run.)
Holmes: Avec plaisir.
Bailed from prison, where he has been regaling criminals with jokes and stories, Holmes has this exchange with the always incompetent Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan):
Lestrade: You know, in another life you’d have made an excellent criminal.
Holmes: And you, sir, an excellent policeman.
I also like this exchange with Watson's fiancee:
Mary: Making these grand assumptions out of tiny details.
Holmes: That’s not quite right, is it? In fact, it’s the little details that are most important.
The filmmakers do the “Batman Begins” thing of saving the iconic villain (Joker/Prof. Moriarty) for the sequel. All tentpole movies do this now. They’re all hoping for a “Dark Knight.” Good luck with that.
“Sherlock Holmes” is fun but it’s another part of our day-to-day disconnect. It’s a movie about a man of supreme concentration with which we distract ourselves for two hours. That’s the true game and boy is it ever afoot.
Movie Review: Le Concert (2009)
WARNING: SPOILERS IN D MINOR
“Le concert” is French, so I assumed refined, about classical music, so I assumed refined again. Plus it was nominated for le meilleur film at the ’09 Cesars. But it’s a rather broad comedy about a group of Russian misfits who pretend to be the Bolshoi Orchestra, and whose concert in Paris looks to be a disaster until they come together and play like a team. It’s basically a misfit baseball movie (“Bad News Bears”; “Major League”), but with Tchaikovsky instead of horsehide.
Andrey Simonovich Filipov (Alexeï Guskov) is the one-time conductor of the Bolshoi Orchestra, who, because of a run-in with Brezhnev in 1980, is now its janitor, bossed around by a bald Khruschevian blowhard. We later find out he has a reputation abroad, not only as a great conductor but as a man of conviction who stood up against anti-Semitism and despotism and suffered for it. He’s the Alexander Solzhenitsyn of conductors! So why is he still schlepping 20 years after the Iron Curtain fell? Why not move to Paris or New York or, hell, Milwaukee? Doesn’t he know his reputation?
For the purposes of this broad comedy, though, he’s still schlepping at the Bolshoi when, in the office of the current director, a fax arrives from the Châtelet Theater in Paris requesting a one-night performance. Filipov, scheming, takes the fax, deletes the corresponding email, and puts together the old team: his right-hand man Sasha (Dmitri Nazarov), a Russian bear of a man; Ivan Gavrilov (Valeriy Barinov), the KGB officer who fingered him, but who is needed for his French language skills and management capabilities; and various Jews (Viktor: Aleksandr Komissarov), Gypsies (Vassili: Anghel Gheorghe) and misfits. A deal with Paris is struck, passports and visas forged, and a gangster/beneficiary found to pay for airfare. Bienvenue a Paris!
Turns out many of the characters have ulterior motives for going: Gavrilov to hook up with the French communist party; Viktor and his son Moïse to sell caviar; and Filipov, most of all, to connect with his soloist for the concert, the beautiful violinist Anne-Marie Jacquet (Mélanie Laurent), who is the daughter of .... ?
It’s tricky. At first, I thought she was Filipov’s daughter—the result of a liaison with the wife of a friend. That would explain why Jacquet’s handler, Guylène de La Rivière (Miou Miou), initially turns down the offer to play with Filipov. It would also explain why Filipov keeps all of Anne-Marie’s recordings and press clippings and why he gets all moony-eyed around her. It would also explain why he takes her out to dinner and why he is hesitant, initially, to explain why he chose her as his soloist.
He could reply, “Because you are the best.” Instead, when she asks, he launches into the tale of his undoing: how, at the Bolshoi, he had a great Jewish soloist, Lea, with whom he was going to achieve greatness in music, but how they were stopped halfway through a Tchaikovsky concert by Gavrilov for illegally employing Jewish musicians; how he was ruined and how Lea and her husband subsequently denounced Brezhnev and were sent to Siberia, where they died.
What she should say: “I still don’t see what this has to do with me.”
What she says: “You’re nice, but sick, and I refuse to play with you.”
What she’s really saying: “We need some false tension for the last third of the film to go with the false tension of who my parents are. Everyone knows I’ll play with you.”
Intercut with this broad drama are scenes of broad comedy: clashes between noisy, grasping Russians and cultivated French. The Russians disperse, like the satellites of the Soviet Union itself, around Paris, and can’t be bothered to show up for practice even though they’ve never practiced together.
Meanwhile Sasha tells Anne-Marie, over the objections of Guylène, that if she plays for Filipov she may find out who her true parents were. (She’s been told they were scientists or something who died in a plane crash in the Alps.) So she shows up. As does everyone else. Well, Viktor and Moïse turn up late. You know Jews.
Initially, yes, the orchestra sounds like crap, and there are titters from the cultivated French crowd, and exasperation from the stuffy French critic, and worried looks back home, where the concert is being shown live on television. But Gavrilov, the former KGB man, reveals his worth by sacrificing his communist-party commitment to lock the true Bolshoi director, the Khruschevian blowhard, who shows up at the 11th hour, in an underground room; then he, this Godless communist, prays to God that the musicians will come together and make beautiful music.
Which they do. The Tchaikovsky is beautiful, the Châtelet is beautiful, and the filming augments the beauty of each; and through the music, and through Filipov’s impassioned conducting, Anne-Marie realizes her parents were, yes, Lea and her husband, who sacrificed so much; and though she is not reunited with them, though they are still as dead as the parents she thought she had for the first 28 years of her life, she is somehow filled and satisfied and made whole. As is Filipov, who goes on to fame and fortune.
“Le concert” is not a good movie. It’s not even as good as those misfit baseball movies I referenced earlier. The original “Bad News Bears” and “Major League” sketch their secondary characters better, and you see them practicing together, which is why they wind up succeeding. “Bad News Bears” even has the 1970s-era message that it’s about the performance, not the winning, which is a message Hollywood doesn’t send much, or we don’t receive much, anymore. “Le concert” implies you don’t need to practice, just wing it, and maybe with a prayer to God ... voila!
Plus: Why the subterfuge about Anne-Marie’s parents in the first place? Why didn’t Guylène tell her, particularly when she became a musical prodigy, that her parents were Soviet musicians who died heroes’ deaths? Why create and maintain a lie that has less meaning than the truth?
Admittedly, there is something admirable about making classical music accessible to the masses via a broad comedy/drama like this; but that doesn’t make the film meilleur. It doesn’t even make it bon.
Movie Review: Vincere (2009)
Once, in my fiction writing days, I contemplated a story about a character who became famous, after which he would no longer be seen with the third-person omniscient voice. From then on, the reader would only experience him in the third person, and only through a media filter. It would be as if he went into another realm. I suppose that’s how I see the famous: in another realm.
“Vincere,” written and directed by Marco Bellocchio, does something similar but better.
The first half of the movie focuses on the torrid romance between Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) and a young, Socialist journalist, Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi), in Milano in the 1910s. They get married, have a child. Then she discovers he’s already married. As he accrues power, she is shunted to the side. Once he becomes prime minister, he disappears from the story. We only experience him through a media filter: in newsreel footage and newspaper photos. It’s as if he disappeared into another realm.
Here’s the “better.” Ida is eventually put into an insane asylum, where she keeps insisting she’s the wife of Benito Mussolini. Initially, since it’s her story we’re watching, we think this is a gross injustice. But at some point we wonder: Wait a minute. Did the first half of the film, that fevered dream, happen? Or did it only happen in her mind? That Mussolini is played by Timi as a young man and himself in newsreel footage furthers our doubt.
This doubt, I’m willing to concede, could be reserved for people, like myself, unfamiliar with her story. Or his.
That surprised me. I don’t know much about Mussolini, do I? I just know the bald, strutting clown on the balcony, head tilted up, bottom lip pouted, arms akimbo. But that he was once a journalist? And a socialist? And had hair?
Timi plays him intense, with love and sex as distractions from the greater game of politics and power. Mezzogiorno plays her distracted by love and sex. Mussolini becomes her all, her reason for living. She slips him notes in the middle of political protests and sells her business to promote his. This is in 1914. Another scene takes place in 1907, as the police break up a nighttime protest, and she pulls him over to the side, kisses him, strokes the back of his head ... which is covered in blood. It’s like a scene out of a horror movie. Is this where they meet? Or does she first see him during the opening scene, a theological debate between a priest and the young Socialist. Mussolini asks for a watch and then challenges God to strike him dead in five minutes to prove He exists. Mussolini lives. Ergo...
This jumping around from place to place, from year to year, adds to the sense of a fevered dream. How do they hook up again? He always seems there. His voice is thunderous during protests but in private he hardly speaks to her. Is she there? Is he?
And why so many scenes in movie theaters? While watching newsreel footage of the beginnings of the Great War, he cries out “Viva Italia!” and helps cause a riot that mirrors the violence on screen. In the hospital, wounded, he watches Giulio Antamoro’s “Cristus” and probably gets ideas—as if he needed them. She sees ... is it a jungle movie? ... and the kids in the audience act the apes.
Life is mirrored on the screen. Then life becomes the screen. Suddenly he’s prime minister, and at the theater Ida’s view is blocked by all the young Fascists standing and saluting his image, huge now, and one-dimensional. She has to share him with everyone.
First he looks down at her from his balcony with contempt ...
... then she looks up at his image during the newsreels ...
... where everyone stands and salutes ...
... his huge, flickering, one-dimensional image.
Her brother-in-law, with whom she’s staying in Trento, tells her, “Resign yourself.” She says, “I can’t.” She says, with a fierce intensity in her eyes, “I was the first to believe in him ... I’m the mother of his first-born son.”
Attempting to meet Mussolini’s functionary in Trento (she’s reduced to that), she’s beaten by black shirts and interred in a mental hospital in Pergine. She fits right in. “I’m Mussolini’s wife!” she cries. “And I’m Napoleon’s!” another woman answers. Then the stakes become known. “My son is waiting,” she says. Everyone just stares.
The inmates of Pergine.
The nuns of Pergine.
There is no figure more sympathetic than a mother kept from her child, but initially Ida doesn’t have ours. In practical terms, she chooses her lover, who is one of the great criminals of the 20th century, over her son, who is an innocent. She turns totalitarian eyes toward him. The secret police tear him from her sister’s family and place him in a private school, where he can be watched. It’s a heart-rending scene. “Uncle, help!” the boy shouts as the uncle is held back and the car speeds away. Maybe I found it heart-rending because I’m an uncle.
Yet her uncompromising stance is both her tragedy and her triumph. Most of us resign ourselves to the ways of power, even in a democracy, but she doesn’t bend even to Fascism. Powerful people visit her, this powerless inmate, but she has the truth like a fire in her eyes and she’s not willing to give it up. She’s shuttled around. A sympathetic doctor in Venice cautions her to play along, to compromise, so she can get back to her son, then shows her Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid” to drive the point home; but even then she’s only willing to go so far. Dragged back to Pergine, sitting before an array of doctors, she seems willing play her part—everyone just wants her to play her part—but at the end she adds, yes, that her son is the first-born child of Benito Mussolini. Negotiations commence. “Senora, just admit you lied.” “Then I would be released?” “In due time.” Pause. “No, no. This questioning ... is a farce.”
There’s a beautiful scene, a Christmas scene, where she climbs an iron fence and sails out letters to her son amid the swirl of snowfall. It’s a fruitless act but it feels like a necessary act. Her circumstances are specific but it seems a universal gesture. We are all trapped in some way. We are all just trying to get word out to someone we love.
“Vincere” is beautifully filmed and powerfully acted but its story is uneven, its ending unsatisfying. Did Bellocchio need to focus on the elements he focused on? Were there no better scenes? Were some cut? We get seven fewer minutes in the States than they got in Italy. What did we miss?
That was my first reaction. But I find myself warming to its unknowability. It feels like it’s trying to communicate something important but I can’t fathom it. It feels like a letter sailed out into the night.
Review: John Rabe (2009)
After nearly 75 years of ignoring the topic, two films about the Rape of Nanjing, one Chinese and one German, were released in 2009. Both suffer the same melodramatic impulse. It’s not enough to show atrocity, we have to show uplift. The music has to well. Good people have to march onward even as what they leave behind is so unspeakable as to shatter faith in God.
The Chinese film, “Nanjing! Nanjing!,” is reviewed here.
The German film, “John Rabe,” focuses, no surprise, on the German, John Rabe (Ulrich Tukur of “Seraphine”), a member of the National Socialist Party (NaSi or Nazi), who, at the start, has spent years in Nanjing building a dam for the German company Siemens. It’s his pride and joy.
But it’s December 1937. The Japanese have attacked China and are approaching Nanjing (literally: southern capital), and anyway Rabe’s been recalled by Siemens to Germany. He and his wife are to leave in two days.
Rabe is not exactly a warm figure here. He calls the Chinese “good for nothing” and “children,” he has made no effort to learn their language, and he assumes he’s safe from the Japanese. “After all, they are allies of the Reich,” he says. When Japanese Zeros begin to bomb his compound, he unfurls a large Nazi flag and has everyone hide beneath it. That night he writes in his diary: “The Japanese are indeed good allies. They hold their fire as soon as they see the flag. Very honorable.”
This is one of my favorite parts of the movie. It’s so easy, in historical dramas, to make protagonists more cognizant of future events than their peers, and most filmmakers can’t resist the impulse (see: Michael Corleone in “Godfather Part II”), so it’s nice when they do. The present’s messy and uncertain. We know we’re watching a movie about an unimaginable holocaust, but unimaginable holocausts are unimaginable. No one thinks they’ll live through one today, tomorrow, or next week.
Unfortunately, we begin to get intimations of something warmer about Rabe. He’s certainly a nicer man than the Siemens exec, Werner Fleiss (Mathias Herrmann), who’s been sent to replace him. Fleiss berates Rabe for allowing a portrait of Hitler to be covered up, and for not flying his huge Nazi flag—literally and figuratively. Then he lowers the boom. He’s not just replacing Rabe: Siemens is shutting down the project. All Rabe’s hard work—gone. “The dam,” Rabe tells his wife, “would’ve been my legacy.”
To which we think: Ah, but he’ll have a different legacy.
In a stiff ceremony, Rabe receives an award as “a hero to the Chinese people,” which is greeted with catcalls from a drunk American, Dr. Wilson (Steve Buscemi), who thinks little of the Nazi businessman. He mocks him. “Hero to the Chinese people,” he says sarcastically.
To which we think: Ah, but soon he WILL be a hero to the Chinese people.
As the Japanese move into Nanjing, an international contingent, including Valérie Dupres (Anne Consigny of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”), a woman with whom Rabe has a subtle flirtation, attempts to establish a “Safety Zone” for both themselves and their Chinese workers. Against Rabe’s wishes, he’s made its president. The music wells up heroically. A day later, Rabe attempts to flee. At least that’s what the others fear, since they see his name and the name of his wife on the passenger list of the last ship leaving Nanjing. They rush down to the dock. There’s tension. Then they see him and his wife making their way through the crowd. It’s true! He’s leaving!
Except there is no tension. We know he’s not leaving. Otherwise we wouldn’t be watching the movie we’re watching.
His wife gets on the ship, yes, but he stays behind, absurdly holding a bird cage, and standing on the top step of the elevated stairs as the ship pulls away. A moment later, Japanese Zeros strafe the ship. He screams her name. For some reason, in this crowded port, no one is near him. He’s all alone watching this attack. Because they couldn’t afford extras? Because it suggests how alone he is now? It’s China, kids. No one is ever alone.
First he loses his legacy, then he loses his wife. This is a big moment in the film. How does he pick himself up? We don’t know. He just does. You could argue he’s on a suicide mission. Medical supplies, including insulin, are low or nonexistent in the Safety Zone, but he tells no one he has diabetes. He simply channels his German efficiency into helping the Chinese rather than Siemens. Instead of building a system to hold back water, he’s building a system to hold back the Japanese.
The horrors get worse. Executions of Chinese men are rampant. Chinese girls cut their hair to seem like boys to prevent rape. Nanjing 1937 is, in fact, one of the true horrors of he modern age, and we should get a sense of these few foreigners propping up the last bit of sane ground in an insane world. But we don’t. Instead we get subplots. Rabe and Wilson bond over drink. Dupres confesses to Rabe she’s housing a whole platoon of Chinese soldiers in a secret room. Rabe and Wilson and Dr. Georg Rosen (Daniel Bruhl of “Inglourious Basterds”) argue over protocol. There are even intimations of romance between Rosen and a Chinese girl. He leaves her a dress. She puts it on. They talk on a couch. Seriously? We need a love story? Are we that pathetic?
There’s one great scene. While Rabe and the others are hat-in-hand at the Japanese embassy, Rabe’s driver, Chang (Ming Li), walking around his car and smoking, is confronted by an angry Japanese guard, who demands, in Japanese, that he stay in his car. But Chang doesn’t speak Japanese. When Rabe leaves the compound, Chang is nowhere to be seen. He searches for him, yells his name, finds him in a fenced-in area with other Chinese who are in the process of being decapitated. It’s a contest sponsored by a Japanese newspaper: What honorable Japanese soldier can decapitate the most Chinese? Rabe tries to get them to stop, to rescue his driver, but Chang is decapitated before his eyes. A Japanese official later says the driver wasn’t following the rules. “He didn’t stay in the car?” Rabe answers. “His head was cut off!” To compensate him for his loss, Rabe is allowed to choose 20 Chinese to take with him, but this is a Faustian bargain. He has to decide who lives and dies. He does it with German efficiency and something like horror in his eyes.
This scene is a rarity, though. Too often, writer/director Florian Gallenberger gives over to melodrama. Near the end, the Japanese want to clear out the Safety Zone and remove evidence of their atrocities before an international contingent arrives, but Rabe and the others stand in the way; they stand in front of more Chinese who are about to be killed. The Japanese begin to go through with the executions anyway: “Ready... aim...” Then the deus ex machina: the sound of the ship arriving with the international contingency. Rabe wins but the movie loses. God, ex machina or otherwise, should not show up here.
The ending is even worse. Rabe is forced to step down as president of the Safety Zone and return to Germany, and, as he makes his way through a throng of grateful Chinese, they chant his name and shout good-bye: “Tzi jien! Tzi jien!” At the other side of this throng, just outside Nanjing, a walled city, stands his wife, still alive, and he rushes to greet her, and they embrace, and a cheer goes up from the Chinese throng. Yay! The German guy is back with his wife! Yay! We’re all about to die! Yay!
How much more effective, how truer, if, after all the good he’d done, he’d left unceremoniously, as alone as he’d been at the port. What group of people recognizes individual good as it’s being done? Don’t we need historians to piece things together? Hell, I’m even cynical about that proposition.
And cheering him? Wouldn’t the remaining Chinese have clawed at him to get him to stay? Or to take them along? Or to take their babies with him so they wouldn’t be skewered by the Japanese?
Instead the Chinese act as audience for this German couple in a story that is about the atrocities that happened to them.
The Rape of Nanjing is a horrific story worth telling. We just keep telling it wrong.