Review: ‘Nanking’ offers the best and worst of humanity

Mariel Hemingway, Woody Harrelson, Jürgen Prochnow and others in “Nanking” offer the ultimate performance by not “performing,” but becoming the historic characters whose words they read.

The characters come to life as the actors disappear, blending seamlessly with documentary footage and the appearance of octogenarian survivors of the horrendous rape of Nanking.

In 1937, just as Europe went berserk under the Nazi flag, supremely civilized Imperial Japan embarked on a needless, incomprehensible mass murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians in the city that was then the capital of China. It was not war, but rather the wholesale slaughter of defenseless people, including the rape and murder of thousands of women and children.

Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, who wrote and directed “Nanking,” took a chance meshing documentary material and well-known actors, but the power of the story and the self-effacing participation of the actors combine for maximum effect.

Hemingway reads from diaries and correspondence of Minnie Vautrin, headmistress of a missionary college for girls; Harrelson speaks the words of Bob Wilson, a surgeon born in China, son of missionaries, educated in the U.S. but returning to Nanking to practice there; Pruchnow is John Rabe, a German businessman and Nazi Party member who used a giant flag with the swastika over the shelter where he protected Chinese civilians. (The late Iris Chang, author of “The Rape of Nanking,” had called Rabe “the Oskar Schindler of China.”)

Hugo Armstrong is John Magee, an Episcopal minister whose film footage of dying victims was smuggled out of China, to be discovered four decades later in Germany.

Magee and Wilson were instrumental in establishing a large Safety Zone in Nanking, providing eventually some protection for as many as 200,000 residents who managed to enter the zone.

Of the many Westerners living in Nanking before the Japanese occupation, a small but magnificent corps of two dozen humanitarians remained to help against the occupying army, in face of deadly danger to themselves.

CREDITS

Nanking

Starring Mariel Hemingway, Woody Harrelson, Jürgen Prochnow

Written by Elisabeth Bentley,

Bill Guttentag, Dan Sturman

Directed by Bill Guttentag,

Dan Sturman

Rated R

Running time 1 hour, 47 minutes

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