26 January 2008 | Supercargo
An anti-war film - if you're ant-war inclined
This is a disturbing and fascinating film. It inter-cuts original newsreel film and film made by witnesses to the atrocity, face-to-camera reminiscence by some of the Chinese eyewitnesses, interviews (apparently made some years ago) with surviving Japanese soldiers who were involved in one part of the massacre, and a small cast of mostly American actors reading excerpts from diary entries, letters and other documents written by some of the 15 Europeans who tried so valiantly to maintain the "safe zone" in the old town of Nanking during the massacre.
As a history teacher, I have taught a little 20th century East Asian history. I knew of the Nanking massacre. I have read some of the documents used in the film and seen some of the still pictures. I hadn't seen any of the film before, though. It's very shocking stuff. That said, the most powerful and emotional moments of the film for me were the interviews. Especially the accounts of the old people, children at the time, who saw their family members killed or experienced rape.
Some of the comments I've read on the message boards here question whether this is a legitimate documentary. The Europeans (and some of the Chinese and one Japanese) are portrayed by actors. They do their job very well, but there is always a problem with dramatisation. How much can we trust the actors' interpretation of their lines? And how far has the editing gone? Then also, why choose just these people to represent the European community? Where were the Danish and British voices? Also, although they had tried to put themselves into character as prim missionary, grey businessman, reticent doctor, at least three of the actors were familiar faces to me, and in the beginning I found my thoughts wandering off the topic as I tried to identify them. (Mariel Hemingway, Jürgen Prochnow and Woody Harrelson.) Contrary to some of the voices on this message board, I don't think Nanking is anti-Japanese propaganda, or simply out to shock. I think the film makers are sincere when they say (through the words of their European witnesses) that the film does not set out to vilify the Japanese as a people. (Though I note that the Chinese witnesses uniformly refer to "Japanese devils" at least in the subtitling.) But isn't it often the case that a film made to condemn the atrocities of war is always likely to be interpreted differently depending on the prejudices the audience brings with them? If you already think the Japanese are devils, this film will confirm you in your belief. If you distrust Americans, you will find more fuel for your prejudice here. If you think all war is hell, you'll go away convinced that this film is a great contribution to the cause of pacifism.
I tend towards the latter. And I think I could use this film in class to teach history.