← Back to portfolio

Justifying John: The Good Nazi of Contemporary German Cinema

Published on

In the concluding minutes of John Rabe, a 2009 German film about the titular historical figure, three of John Rabe’s friends gather to bid him farewell. As he walks off towards the ship that will carry him away from China back home to Germany, the three friends, in unison, sing a famous melody of French origin: “But he’s [Rabe] a jolly good fellow, but he’s a jolly good fellow…which no one can deny!” The choice of melody is striking, not for any particular reason within the filmic text, but rather for its metatextual implications. Why? Because quite a few people would probably deny that Rabe is a “jolly good fellow.” 

This might appear perplexing, for Rabe’s greatest act (the act for which the film commemorates him) was to save the lives of thousands of Chinese peasants during Imperial Japan’s brutal Rape of Nanking in 1937, at the outset of World War II. However, Rabe did this not as unaffiliated businessman, but as a member of the Nazi Party. Rabe’s unabashed support of Hitler and the Third Reich complicates his lofty humanitarianism. He is often compared to Schindler, a similarly conscientious Nazi industrialist who also exploited his privileged position to save the lives of more than 1,100 Jews. But while Steven Spielberg’s 1995 film Schindler’s List grappled with Schindler’s moral complexity, Florian Gallenberger’s John Rabe presents its titular character as an unambiguously heroic figure. Belying the film’s seemingly unapologetically mythical portrayal of Rabe is a persistent concern that viewers may not buy into said portrayal. The result is a film, and a filmmaker, deeply insecure about their interpretation of their subject matter. John Rabe goes to great lengths not only to exalt Rabe, but then to justify that exaltation to its viewers. It does the latter primarily by addressing potential criticisms of Rabe within the narrative itself, and then validating its rebuttals by claiming absolute historical authenticity. Only after Gallenberger has devoted 130 minutes to exonerating Rabe of any Nazi-based guilt does he tells his viewers, through the mouths of his characters, that Rabe’s heroism is something that “no one can deny!”

The trope of the “good Nazi,” though mostly unheard of in the immediate postwar decades, has become a mainstay of contemporary German cinema. The “third wave,” coming on the heels of the reflexively critical approach to German guilt propagated by the New German Cinema of the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, marked a return to the common cinematic portrayal of Germans in the postwar years as “victims” of the Nazi regime, rather than as its enablers. But more than that, it also focused on “better Germans” who resisted the Nazi regime rather than supported it, thus providing contemporary Germans examples of ethical consciousness in a time when most Germans seemed to lack it.[1] These new films, by presenting Germans with supposedly historical examples of German resistance to Nazism, fulfill an exculpatory function. They absolve the German people of responsibility for Nazism atrocities, thus offering contemporary Germans a means of coming to terms with their Nazi past — by escaping from it. A subset of this newfound fixation on the “good German” has been the focus on the so-called “good Nazi”— supporters of Hitler who found the ethical backbone to contradict the Nazi regime in action, if not always in principle. While the most prominent film of this kind, Schindler’s List, came from Hollywood, twenty-first century Germany has been swept by a tidal wave of films and television shows purporting to portray “moral” Nazis: Downfall (2004), Not Everyone Was A Murderer (2006), Krupp—A German Family, (2009), Wunderkinder (2011), Four Days in May (2011), Rommel (2012), and Bosch (2013).[2] John Rabe surfed this wave — by the time the film was released, the notion of portraying a “good Nazi,” far from breaking a cultural taboo, had practically become mainstream.

Two important factors, however, distinguished John Rabe from most of its peers. The first was Gallenberger’s uncritical acceptance of Rabe’s basic heroism. While many contemporary German films do portray “good” Nazis, they also typically attempt to explore, in some capacity, the necessarily muddled ethics of people who could be both fascist and moral. Films like Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005) and Counterfieters (2007) attempt to access the moral complexity of their “gray” Nazi characters.[3] Gallenberger, however, does not see Rabe as a challenging figure to be grappled with but rather a straightforward hero to be celebrated: “Absolutely, he was a hero, a real hero. He had no weapon in his hand. He did it without contemplating personal gains. […] Although he was bare-handed, he did not command armies in wars, he was a hero.”[4]

Gallenberger’s impulse to present Rabe as an unequivocally heroic figure was hampered, however, by the film’s international production crew — the second way in which it was distinct from other “good Nazi” German films. Though written and directed by a German, the film was a German-Chinese-French product that also featured prominent Japanese actors. This multinational diversity is reflective of the film’s historical focus on the Nanking massacre, which sat at the intersection of affairs concerning Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, China, France, and the the United States. The film’s international ingredients meant it would be subject to international scrutiny, a reality that Gallenberger had to consider for both artistic and commercial purposes. Indeed, Gallenberger said that he initially asked himself whether he, “as a German, can… make a film that has a member of the Nazi party as the lead character who tries to rescue Chinese civilians from the Japanese aggressors by using the Nazi flag?” John Rabe resolves these concerns by insisting on Rabe’s pure heroism while staging, via pedagogically-positioned characters and calculated narrative choices, an illusory debate on Rabe’s morality that satisfies the appearance of ethical analysis without actually compromising Gallenberger’s romanticized view of the German businessman.

So who is the real John Rabe? A German businessman who moved to China in 1908 to work with the Siemens China Company, Rabe eventually became a passionate supporter of Hitler, even representing the the Nazi Party in Nanking. Rabe’s commitment to National Socialism, however, didn’t prevent him from establishing a Safety Zone to save thousands of Chinese from the Japanese army’s theft, rape, and murder of Nanking’s residents in 1937, an atrocity that historian Iris Chang has dubbed “the forgotten Holocaust of World War II.” In his diaries, Rabe recorded the ways he used his Nazi membership to force Japanese soldiers to spare Chinese civilians (as Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany were allies).[5] The Chinese whose lives Rabe saved dubbed him “the living Buddha of Nanking.” Rabe was not as well-received in Nazi Germany, which banned him from publicizing Japan’s crimes when he returned in 1938. In the years after Hitler’s fall, Rabe denounced National Socialism, claiming he would have never supported it had he been aware of Hitler’s slaughter of the Jews.[6]

As much as Rabe’s impressive humanitarian efforts lend credence to this claim, it invites skepticism due to its timing; certainly anyone would be eager to deny ties to Nazism in the aftermath of Hitler’s defeat. However, it is these comments, Gallenberger has claimed, that persuaded him of the permissibility of a film commemorating John Rabe. Indeed, Gallenberger appears to have taken Rabe’s apparent regret for supporting Hitler as license to unquestioningly lionize him and his legacy.[7] Much as Rabe applied for formal de-Nazification in the postwar years, so too has Gallenberger de-Nazified Rabe via his film, and in doing so has made him not an ambivalent hero but an absolute saint. Although the film’s opening 10 minutes appeared to set up a more complicated hero, pointedly highlighting Rabe’s paternalistic racism toward the Chinese, this aspect of his character all but recedes and vanishes once the film’s main plot kicks into gear, and the nuanced Rabe of the film’s earlier scenes loses much of his texture as Gallenberger begins to de-Nazify him in earnest.

Gallenberger portrays Rabe as an unambiguous hero primarily by discouraging moral reflection on his Nazi loyalties. He achieves this by visually disassociating Rabe from Nazi iconography, even when doing so contradicts the historical record. The historical Rabe, in his diaries, noted that he would threaten Imperial Japanese soldiers by pointing to his swastika armband or Nazi Party badge.[8] The soldiers, wary of transgressing their country’s alliance with Nazi Germany, would almost always oblige his demands. In the film, however, Rabe’s swastika armband never appears, and his Nazi badge only features in a single scene, where the camera’s fuzzy focus all but obscures it. Instead, Rabe proves his Nazi identity to the Japanese by saluting Hitler. This change, while subtle, has significant implications. The film doesn’t show Rabe’s armband or badge because such visual markers would serve as constant reminders of his support of the Third Reich. Integrating them into his character design would force his support for Nazism into the viewer’s consciousness whenever he appears, thus foregrounding the complicated ethical debate represented by a “good Nazi” like Rabe. By distancing Rabe’s filmic image from archetypal symbols of Nazism, Gallenberger shields the viewer from troublesome introspection on questions of moral culpability, facilitating instead the uncritical acceptance of the film’s idealization of Rabe. Though the Hitler salute does identify Rabe as a Nazi, the brevity and rarity of the gesture means its leaves a far weaker impression on the viewer than an ever-present swastika armband or Nazi badge would. By indicating Rabe’s support of Hitler through an act (the salute) rather than a marker of identity (the Nazi badge), Gallenberger implies that Rabe was not in essence a Nazi, but rather a conscientious man who happened to be one. This is the difference, for example, between being a citizen of a country and a member of an ethnic group; the former can change—and therefore be rehabilitated—but the latter cannot. 

Thus Gallenberger effectively distances Rabe from Nazism and, in between them, finds a space in which Rabe can be potentially redeemed. The Hitler salute ultimately fulfills the same historical and narrative functions as the swastika armband, while still keeping Rabe visually cleansed of Nazism. Gallenberger further distances Rabe from the Third Reich by having another Nazi in the film — Hans Fliess — very visibly wear the swastika armband when he visits Nanking. Fleiss is very much coded as a stereotypically “evil Nazi,” in necessary contradistinction to Rabe — he scolds him for not raising the giant Nazi flag sent to him from Germany, is content to allow the Japanese to bomb the Chinese to death, and cowardly flees once the actual war begins. Viewers, when they watch the film, will associate the swastika armband with him, not Rabe.

But Gallenberger goes beyond simply omitting Rabe’s swastika armband; he replaces it with that of a Red Cross. Throughout the film, Rabe wears the Red Cross armband in precisely the spot that one might expect a Nazi armband, as demonstrated by Fleiss’s example (just above the elbow). This quiet costuming choice marks Rabe as a humanitarian, visually aligning him with the international doctors with which he works in opposition to Imperial Japan and, by extension, Nazi Germany. Gallenberger’s choice of the Red Cross (and it is a choice, as nothing in the historical record suggests that Rabe wore such an armband) is not just narratively sensible but thematically powerful. The Red Cross, as a symbol, is the aesthetic and semiotic antithesis of the swastika. Whereas the swastika denotes exclusionary bigotry, the cross indicates universal hospitality. Visually, the Red Cross both parallels and inverts the swastika; both employ sleek white and bright red color schemes, but whereas the actual symbol of the cross is red but set against a white backdrop, the swastika sits inside a white circle set against a red backdrop. 

To be clear, these are not meanings that Rabe, in history or in the film, should have been able to appreciate — for him, the swastika was a mark of loyalty and a life-saving tool. Rather, this costuming design exploits the historical hindsight and popular perception of a modern-day audience, who will instantly associate the widely-recognized symbol of the Red Cross, and those who wear it, with sacrifice and valor. The particular contemporary resonance of the Red Cross may explain why it features so prominently in both English and French posters for the film, which deliberately foreground Rabe’s Red Cross armband. As the only bright object in these posters, it deliberately draws attention to itself.[9] The prominent placement of the Red Cross armband visually and imaginatively displaces the Nazi armband, which the viewers see early on with Fleiss. The Red Cross’s superficial similarities to the swastika serve to recall it only to erase it, effectively “rehabilitating” Rabe.

Aside from cleaving apart Rabe and Nazism, Gallenberger entrenches Rabe’s mythically heroic status by lionizing him through Hollywood filmic convention. This is perhaps best captured by Rabe’s showdown with the Japanese troops outside of the Safety Zone at the film’s climax. Just as the Imperial Japanese prince Asaka is about to give his soldiers the order to fire on the defenseless Chinese civilians defending the entrance of the Safety Zone, which the Imperial army is planning to invade on the pretext of removing Chinese soldiers, Rabe emerges. Gallenberger’s melodramatic staging of Rabe’s entrance recalls those of countless protagonists in countless Hollywood films. He enters at the emotional climax of the confrontation, the music and the tension building up to and culminating in his dramatic opening of the Safety Zone’s doors. The camera then momentarily switches to a point-of-view shot from his perspective, depicting the dirty Chinese eying him reverently as they part to let him through. This shot both invites identification with Rabe while also imbuing him with an aura of wonder. After Rabe stares down the Japanese and they eventually depart, the viewer is treated to a long shot that frames Rabe, standing alone in the foreground, against the celebrating Chinese masses in the background. The low angle of the shot presents Rabe as a larger-than-life hero, underlining his towering stature both literally and figuratively.

Occurring simultaneously alongside the construction of Rabe’s heroism within the film is a justification of that heroism. The film exhibits a keen awareness of the potential criticism that can be aimed its way, and it preempts these criticisms by voicing them itself and then proceeding to refute them. These detractions find their primary mouthpieces in Georg Rosen, a German-Jewish ambassador, and Dr. Robert Wilson, an American doctor. Both are real historical figures that did indeed work with Rabe in Nanking; Rosen, especially, is mentioned extensively in Rabe’s diaries.[10] The Rosen of the film is unforgiving in his criticism of Rabe, insulting his Nazi loyalties by scornfully shouting “Heil Shitler” when he does the Nazi salute and confronting Rabe about the barriers his Jewish heritage has placed in his path to promotion. The real-life Wilson, after working with Rabe, praised him highly while expressing his bewilderment that such a “splendid” man could have such “adulation [for] ‘Der Fuhrer.’”[11] The film extrapolates from Wilson’s puzzlement a full-blown clash between him and Rabe. They spend much of the runtime at odds with one another, with Rabe seeking Wilson’s acceptance and Wilson aggressively withholding it. The doctor doesn’t mince words in his criticisms of Rabe, all of which originate from his Nazism. Wilson repeatedly calls Rabe “Nazi swine” and “phony bastard,” and sarcastically denigrates him as “the hero of the Chinese people!”

Wilson and Rosen may be historical figures, but the film’s emphasis on their critiques of Rabe fulfills intentional pedagogical and dialectic functions. Wilson, as an American doctor, serves as an effective stand-in for the international Allied perspective on Nazism — and, from a metatextual perspective, the international Western viewers of the film. Rosen, as a German Jew, offers an even more critical perspective: that of a domestic Jew directly affected by Nazi anti-Semitism. Together, the two men offer a relatively comprehensive repository of the most common criticisms of the “good Nazi” from the most relevant viewpoints — those who opposed the Third Reich, and those most impacted by it. Their presence in the film enables it to trash Rabe more quickly, and more harshly, than any prospective critics. More important, though, is the immense narrative authority that incorporating such virulent criticism affords the film. Firstly, it allows the film to appear cognizant of the moral conundrums presented by a figure like Rabe, thus earning it credibility with its viewers. Secondly, it allows the film to retain total control of Rabe’s narrative, and thus his legacy. By voicing viewers’ potential objections for them, Gallenberger gives himself the opportunity to respond to and neuter such objections within the space of the film itself.

The extent to which the inclusion of attacks on Rabe actually works to Gallenberger’s benefit becomes clear when one considers how Rabe’s response to such personal attack positively enhances viewers’ perception of his character. Notably, Rabe almost never actually responds to Wilson’s or Rosen’s charges. Typically he just gazes at them in silence, the expression on his face inscrutable. Rabe’s refusal to defend or justify his actions renders him a more sympathetic figure than he might have otherwise been. After all, the moment Rabe responds to his opponent’s attacks on his character, he dignifies their criticism and risks coming off as a misguided man attempting to justify his misguidance. Rabe’s silence, from a narrative and metatextual viewpoint, is tactful because it means the viewer never has to witness Rabe ardently defending Hitler or justifying the tenets of Nazism, acts which would mar his image. More importantly, his silence in the face of personal attack positions him as the victim and his critic as the aggressor. Paradoxically, then, the moments when the film’s characters criticize Rabe the most harshly are the moments when he appears the most sympathetic.

Perhaps the scene that best captures this counter-intuitive dynamic is one shared between Rabe and Wilson near the middle of the film, when they are both struggling with the early horrors of the Nanking massacre. Wilson, whose decision to allow a soldier into the civilian hospital led the Japanese army to kill the soldier and several doctors, is drinking away his pain inside the Safety Zone’s base of operations. Rabe notices Wilson and decides to sit by him and discuss what happened. Although Rabe is critical of Wilson’s decision, his presence gives Wilson someone to confide in. The intimacy of the moment is indicated by the camera, which switches from a long shot when Rabe first notices Wilson slouching on the sofa to intense over-the-shoulder close-ups for the entirety of their conversation. The camera’s proximity forces us into the two men’s headspace, while also communicating both the physical and emotional proximity wrought  by their conversation. Wilson eventually offers Rabe a glass of beer, even as he calls him “Nazi swine.” Rabe, in one of his rare responses to criticism, reacts not with anger but with a light-hearted jab at Wilson for being a “winy crybaby.” Wilson’s smirk signals to the audience that the two are engaging in banter rather than serious argument. That the two would even engage in such repartee marks the first time in the film that they approach anything resembling reconciliation. This scene, along with the one that immediately follows, primes the viewer to expect Rabe and Wilson to finally forge a friendship in the crucible of their grief.

In the next scene, Rabe plays the piano while Wilson sings and dances around the room. Rabe is initially reluctant to play along with Wilson’s dance routine, as the song in question —“Hitler, He’s Only Got One Ball”— offends his Nazi loyalties. However, he eventually acquiesces, and for a few seconds the two laugh as they execute a dance routine together, with Rabe at the piano and Wilson spinning around. Though the slight trembling of the frame, caused by Gallenberger’s almost singular use of the handheld camera, is mostly used throughout the film to cultivate a sense of unease, in this context it conveys a sense of wild fun, following as it does Wilson’s chaotic twirling around the room. The setting, lent an air of cozy domesticity by leather sofas and soft lighting, mentally removes the viewer from gritty, bloody streets in which the film’s massacres occur. Every aesthetic choice in the scene's composition encourages the viewer to invest in a reconciliatory conclusion to Rabe and Wilson’s time together. 

When Rabe, once the fun is over, sticks out his hand in a gesture of friendship, the viewer expects Wilson to take it. Gallenberger leans into this expectation, as Wilson raises his arm in the direction of Rabe’s hand and for a moment appears as though he will indeed grip it; but then Wilson stands up and bids Rabe farewell with a sarcastic Hitler salute. His abrupt reassertion of the boundaries between him and Rabe confounds the narrative expectations cultivated in the preceding minutes. We therefore feel the same weight of rejection that Rabe feels, almost inevitably sympathizing with him. The camera lingers on Rabe as he gazes off-screen towards Wilson’s retreating back, allowing us to take in his solemnly disappointed expression. The medium shot frames Rabe against the backdrop of the now-empty room, emphasizing his loneliness. The sudden silence following Wilson’s departure transmutes the domestic setting from one of warm welcome to frosty abandonment.

Scenes such as this one serve to alienate the viewer from Rosen and Wilson, who appear unfairly harsh, and draw them closer to Rabe, who appears unfairly maligned. Because the filmic Rabe doesn’t match in image or substance the vicious accusations lobbied at him by his detractors, the audience can’t help but feel defensive on his behalf. By contrasting the hostility of Rabe’s critics with his kindness, the film implicitly argues that those who attack Rabe, inside and outside of the film, do so in ignorance of his character. 

This dialectic move, however, only exposes the meaningless of the film’s exploration of Rabe’s morality. Gallenberger rigs the game by consciously excluding from the film anything that would make one think that Wilson and Rosen actually have a point. Thus, the “debate” that the film purports to construct about the possibility of a “good Nazi” like Rabe is a hollow one, as the answer (yes, he is) is a foregone conclusion. Gallenberger not only omits historical information that would make Rabe appear unsympathetic (such his role as the leading Nazi of Nanking or his post-hoc rationalizations of his support for Hitler), but also alters history to embellish Rabe’s image.

Gallenberger has cited Rabe’s “false conception of Nazism”— that is, his ignorance of its realities, as one justification for cinematically commemorating him.[12] His film convey Rabe’s ignorance by highlighting his childish embrace of Imperial Japan. When Rabe, Wilson, Rosen, and few other officials meet to discuss what to do about the incoming Japanese siege of Nanking, Rabe is initially against resisting the Imperial Japanese army, but not because he supports them. Rather, it’s because he genuinely believes they mean well. Rabe bases this belief on the pamphlets that Japanese airplanes rained down on Nanking, which he hands out at the meeting. That the pamphlets are propaganda appears to escape Rabe’s understanding, and the effect of this obvious oversight is to infantilize him. After all, none of the other adults in the room buy the idea that the Japanese are paragons of compassion. Wilson’s dramatic entrance seconds after Rabe hands out the pamphlets, his apron splattered with the blood of the dead children he’d operated on, only throws into sharper relief the ridiculous childishness of Rabe’s trust in the Imperial troops. 

And yet it is within this naïveté that the film locates Rabe’s redemption. By infantilizing Rabe, the film is able to absolve him of even passive support for the Japanese regime’s atrocities — after all, he thought it was run by moralistic men, not monsters. Gallenberger suggests this naiveté even earlier in the film, during the party at the Chinese embassy. There, Rabe expresses surprise when a friend dismisses Fukuda, the attaché to the Japanese embassy, as a “toady,” noting that he himself has “always liked him.” The friend’s response is telling: “You’ve had no dealings with him.” Again, the implication is that Rabe can only like Fukuda and his Imperial ilk because he doesn’t know them — that is, because he’s ignorant. The film prefaces this interaction with a scene that demonstrates Fukuda’s casual racism towards the Chinese, implying that this is the sort of behavior of which Rabe is ignorant and of which he would be condemnatory if he knew (never mind that the film opened by illustrating Rabe’s own racism towards the Chinese, yet another indication that the film forgets this aspect of his character almost as quickly as it introduces it). Since Imperial Japan was an ally of Nazi Germany, Gallenberger’s laborious emphasis on Rabe’s initial blindness to its cruelty also implicitly absolves him of responsibility for Nazi Germany’s crimes, as the demonstration of his naiveté about Japan also suggests his ignorance about the realities of Germany. If Rabe knew nothing about Nazism’s true character, then he cannot be condemned for supporting it.

The only problem with Rabe’s naiveté, however, is that it is mostly manufactured by Gallenberger. Rabe did indeed believe Hitler would save Nanking, as the film makes sure to mention. However, there is little evidence that Rabe ever believed the Japanese meant well. While Rabe did record the Japanese dropping pamphlets, this occurred well after they’d begun their siege of Nanking. Rabe, in fact, scorned the pamphlets as “propaganda material.” [13] The notion that Rabe ever took these pamphlets at face value, therefore, was contrived by the filmmakers as a means of exaggerating his naiveté and thus clearing him of guilt and endearing him to the audience.

Such historical “rearrangement” occurs elsewhere as well. One particularly egregious instance of this is the swapping of Rosen and Rabe’s negotiation styles. Rosen was known as an aggressive individual who “spoke his mind candidly, could be touchy, and also short tempered on occasion,” as well as one who “was sometimes very blunt as well.” These characteristics meant that he “approached the Japanese in Nanking with his head held high.”[14] Rabe, on the other hand, was far more diplomatic. But while Rabe’s restrained approach might be more practical, Rosen’s bold self-righteousness is more admirable. As such, Gallenberger switches Rosen’s and Rabe’s diplomatic dispositions. In the film, it is Rosen who is timid and Rabe who is the aggressive, morally uncompromising one. Before they go to meet Imperial Prince Asaka, Rosen warns Rabe not to reach for a handshake if the general-prince doesn’t. This is the first thing Rabe does when they meet, much to Rosen’s frustration. Rosen is even more horrified when, during the actual meeting with the general, Rabe pointedly declares that he doesn’t “allow [himself] to be deluded, by anyone,” in a thinly veiled attack on the Japanese general. Rabe’s violation of Rosen’s advice, fueled as it is by his apparent anger at the prince’s denial of Japanese atrocities, helps glorify Rabe as a hero. The camerawork in this scene, though quiet, contrasts Rabe’s calmly righteous anger with Rosen’s flustered nervousness. Though the two sit side-by-side at the negotiating table, they are visually separated, each occupying his own frame. Gallenberger’s ever-present handheld camera trembles when trained on Rosen but steadies when focused on Rabe, contrasting self-interested anxiety with certain moral conviction. The film intercuts between Rabe and Rosen throughout the conversation, heightening the contrast between the two while emphasizing Rosen’s increasing restlessness in response to Rabe’s relentless (but understated) hostility towards the Japanse general. Gallenberger, through such historical manipulation, sands off the rough edges of Rabe's story. 

And yet the film appears aware that it can be charged with misrepresenting the historical Rabe for its own agenda. As such, even as it crafts a romanticized narrative more befitting of a novel than a documentary, John Rabe still seeks to persuade the viewer of its absolute historical authenticity. Such a claim is critical to justifying its glorification of Rabe. After all, the mechanism by which the film exculpates Rabe — the distance between who he is and who his critics think he is — is seriously undermined if viewers do not believe the film’s portrayal of Rabe is historically grounded. In such a case his heroic actions would be perceived as mere fiction and thus of little consequence to the debate on Rabe’s morality. 

Gallenberger claims the mantle of historical authenticity by incorporating archival footage of 1937 Nanking into the film itself This footage grants the film some weight as a retelling of actual events. Careful cutting and stitching allows black-and-white footage to seamlessly transition into colored re-creations of the same historical scenes, linking reality to fiction, history to film (significantly, the 2012 film Rommel, also featuring Ulrich Tukur in the leading role, utilizes this same technique to the same ends).[15] The historical footage is, from the first minutes of the film, overlaid with film-Rabe’s narration, blurring the divide between the two and therefore suggesting that both occupy the same sphere of historical and epistemic authority. Such audiovisual fusions situate the film and documentary footage in the same realm of reality, effectively elevating the film to the level of history. Furthermore, the filmic Rabe’s tendency to preface his narrations with specific dates suggest that his words are drawn straight from the real-life Rabe’s diaries, which implies that the film is a faithful reenactment of the events Rabe witnessed and recorded — never mind, of course, that many of the film’s dates do not correspond to any in the actual diaries. 

The film’s claims to historical fidelity climax in a sequence wherein Rabe and his compatriots watch video recordings of the massacre they are experiencing. The videos bears remarkable resemblance to the monochromatic documentary footage that flashes across the screen throughout the film. In several shots, historical footage is framed by a running film reel inside a dark room, clearly situating the footage within, and not beyond, the universe of Gallenberger’s movie. By momentarily reducing such archival records to something that the film’s characters can and do watch, the film’s fictional universe subsumes the historical one represented by the documentary footage, in effect asserting the authority of the former over the latter. This claim is bolstered by the presence of the Chinese photographer Langshu. The film cuts between her photographing filmically recreated atrocities and actual historical footage of said atrocities, implying that she, the film’s fictional creation, is producing historical reality. Clearly, then, John Rabe suggests that it and archival newsreels are interchangeable in terms of their historical legitimacy and representative authority.

It is only after the film justifies Rabe on the basis of its purportedly accurate portrayal of him that we arrive at the final scene, in which Rabe’s in-universe critics finally accept him, and by extension the argument that the film has made in his favor. Rabe walks away as Wilson, Rosen, and Dupres sing, in unison, that “he’s a jolly good fellow… and so say all of us!” Recall that Wilson stands in for the Allied West, Rosen for the German Jews. Their agreement on Rabe’s moral integrity therefore symbolizes his acceptance by the international community. The metatextual significance of this moment is obvious. Gallenberger’s film was the product of an international collaboration targeting an international audience. This final scene encourages the film’s international viewers to also accept Rabe as a hero, much as the film’s characters do. That the formerly critical Wilson and Rosen accept Rabe indicates that any potential critics of Rabe, and in fact of the entire filmic project of John Rabe, should accept him as well. This final screen thus, quite presumptuously, asserts that the film has proven Rabe’s essential heroism and justified its uncritically fawning portrayal of him.

And yet, crucially, the film never actually explains why Wilson and Rosen reevaluate their opinions of Rabe. Since he never responds to their attacks, he never actually addresses their critiques. The viewer is left to presume Wilson and Rosen were finally converted by the sheer quantity and quality of his heroic displays, from leaving his life savings to the Chinese peasants to risking his life defending the Safety Zone. These good deeds, however, do not actually address the central ethical dilemma represented by the figure of Rabe, which is his dual humanitarianism and Nazism. Wilson and Rosen took issue with Rabe due to his proud support of the Nazi regime. Since Rabe’s humanitarian actions were not motivated by any ideological objection to the Third Reich, they do not resolve his critics’ concerns. That Wilson and Rosen should retract their criticisms implies that the particular problem of identifying with Nazism can be mitigated, in fact neutralized and eliminated, via generic acts of “goodness.” This gets at the heart of the question of whether or not the “good Nazi” can exist. If a Nazi undertakes objectively moral acts, as Rabe did, without intending such morality to philosophically contradict Nazism, then is he a good person? Can someone be praised for resisting Nazism even if they did not frame said resistance as a rejection of its fundamental tenets? These are important questions, but the film never grapples with them.

The film thus presents the illusion of a serious dissection of Rabe’s character while sidestepping any truly substantive analysis of his complicated morality. Its gestures at a more complex presentation of Rabe — the racism he displays towards the Chinese early in the film, Wilson’s and Rosen’s withering critiques of his politics — are ultimately just that: gestures. They bolster the film's pretentions of nuance but ultimately never develop into a meaningful meditation on Rabe’s character, because their primary function is not to complicate Rabe’s portrayal, but to give the appearance of complicating Rabe’s portrayal. The value of John Rabe as an object of filmic study, then, derives not from its analysis of the archetypal “good Nazi,” but rather the insight it provides into how such a contradiction is rationalized and accepted.

It's clear that Gallenberger simply does not see Rabe as a “real” Nazi. Consider the criticisms he puts in the mouth of Wilson, a man whose perspective the film ultimately rejects.  Early in the film, when he sees Rabe at a party, Wilson tells his date (Valérie Dupres) that “I don’t like Nazis!” When Dupres defends Rabe by saying “he’s just a member of the Party,” Wilson responds with the refrain of many a critic: “Which makes him a Nazi!” This line of arguments deliberately evokes a totalizing view of Nazism as uniformly and exclusively evil, necessarily marring even those who only passively support it. This is the presumption undergirding critical attitudes towards “good Nazis"; even if they never directly participated in any killing, they are still morally culpable for passively supporting a regime that did indeed kill. Rabe, even if he never took a life and in fact saved a few, is by default morally complex due to his avowed support of Nazism. Some of the critical response to John Rabe shows that Gallenberger was right to anticipate this view: Slant Magazine criticized the film for giving a presumably complex figure like Rabe a “sentimentalized on-screen treatment,”[16] while AV Club lamented that Gallenberger “never fully accesses the conflict between [Rabe’s] lingering nationalism and his prevailing sense of justice.”[17] These criticisms presume a necessary complication in Rabe’s character, despite his overwhelming humanitarian work. 

Gallenberger’s response to such criticism is perhaps best captured by Dupres’s sly response to Wilson: “Are you a member of the Church? What do you think of witch-burning?” Disingenuous analogizing aside, Gallenberger simply doesn’t appear to see a tension between Rabe’s Nazism and his humanitarianism, because he doesn’t believe that Rabe’s mere support of Nazism necessarily implies any guilt.

Gallenberger understood, however, that the rest of the world might not see it that way. This is why his film ultimately isn’t courageous enough to present, unfiltered, the historical reality: that Rabe’s human decency coexisted with his Nazi loyalties. Instead, he distances Rabe from Nazism, and then claim that criticisms of Rabe are misguided by pointing to that distance as evidence, a distance that he himself created. In that sense, Gallenberger’s dialectic strategy reflects much of the exculpatory discourse adopted by many Germans today. In order to forcefully “reclaim” and “come to terms” with their past, Germans often have to change not just their history, but negotiate such change in a way that encourages the rest of the world to find acceptable that which they already do.


Primary Sources

Rabe, John. The Good Man of Nanking: the Diaries of John Rabe. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Secondary Sources

Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies, Volume 47, Number 5, November 2011, pp. 661-680. “Revisiting the Wound of a Nation: The "Good Nazi" John Rabe and the Nanking Massacre.”

Ó Dochartaigh, Pól, and Christiane Schönfeld, eds. Representing the "Good German" in Literature and Culture after 1945: Altruism and Moral Ambiguity. Boydell and Brewer, 2013. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt31nh0x.

Schenker, Andrew, Diego Semerene, Eric Henderson, Kenji Fujishima, Alexa Camp, Ed Gonzalez, and House Staff. "John Rabe | Film Review." Slant Magazine. May 17, 2010. Accessed December 15, 2017. https://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/john-rabe.

Tobias, Scott. "John Rabe." Film. May 20, 2010. Accessed December 15, 2017. https://film.avclub.com/john-rabe-1798165109.

Bradshaw, Peter. "Film review: City of War: The Story of John Rabe." The Guardian. April 01, 2010. Accessed December 15, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/apr/01/city-of-war-the-story-of-john-rabe-review.

Chen, David W. "At the Rape of Nanking: A Nazi Who Saved Lives." The New York Times. December 11, 1996. Accessed December 19, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/1996/12....


[1] Moellers, Hans-Bernard. Colloquia Germanica, Vol. 40, No. 1, Thema: Film (2007), pp. 19-35. “Sophie Scholl and Post-WW II German Film: Resistance and the Third Wave.” Published by Narr Francke Attempto Verlag GmbH Co. KG

[2] Ó Dochartaigh, Pól, and Christiane Schönfeld, eds. Representing the "Good German" in Literature and Culture after 1945: Altruism and Moral Ambiguity. Boydell and Brewer, 2013. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt31nh0x.

[3] Ibid

[4] Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies, Volume 47, Number 5, November 2011, pp. 661-680. “Revisiting the Wound of a Nation: The "Good Nazi" John Rabe and the Nanking Massacre.”

[5] Rabe, John. The Good Man of Nanking: the Diaries of John Rabe. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

[6] Rabe, John. The Good Man of Nanking: the Diaries of John Rabe. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

[7] Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies, Volume 47, Number 5, November 2011, pp. 661-680. “Revisiting the Wound of a Nation: The "Good Nazi" John Rabe and the Nanking Massacre.”

[8] Rabe, John. The Good Man of Nanking: the Diaries of John Rabe. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, p. 82-84

[9] "John Rabe (2009)." Cinemorgue Wiki. Accessed December 19, 2017.

[10] Rabe, John. The Good Man of Nanking: the Diaries of John Rabe. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

[11] Chen, David W. "At the Rape of Nanking: A Nazi Who Saved Lives." The New York Times. December 11, 1996. Accessed December 19, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/1996/12/12/world/at-the-rape-of-nanking-a-nazi-who-saved-lives.html.

[12] Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies, Volume 47, Number 5, November 2011, pp. 661-680. “Revisiting the Wound of a Nation: The "Good Nazi" John Rabe and the Nanking Massacre.”

[13] Rabe, John. The Good Man of Nanking: the Diaries of John Rabe. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, p. 69

[14] Ibid, p. 37

[15] Ó Dochartaigh, Pól, and Christiane Schönfeld, eds. Representing the "Good German" in Literature and Culture after 1945: Altruism and Moral Ambiguity. Boydell and Brewer, 2013. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt31nh0x.

[16] Schenker, Andrew, Diego Semerene, Eric Henderson, Kenji Fujishima, Alexa Camp, Ed Gonzalez, and House Staff. "John Rabe | Film Review." Slant Magazine. May 17, 2010. Accessed December 15, 2017. https://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/john-rabe.

[17] Tobias, Scott. "John Rabe." Film. May 20, 2010. Accessed December 15, 2017. https://film.avclub.com/john-rabe-1798165109.

0 Comments Add a Comment?

Add a comment
You can use markdown for links, quotes, bold, italics and lists. View a guide to Markdown
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. You will need to verify your email to approve this comment. All comments are subject to moderation.