JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Nanking (Directors: Bill Guttentag, Dan Sturman) - January 7, 2008


3.5 3.5
88 min.

Reviewed at the 2008 Palm Springs International Film Festival
But who can throw the first stone?

Atrocities against the powerless have befuddled the planet since the invention of envy and greed. If you have something I want, or desire (need sometimes also plays a role) and my gun is bigger than yours, then I will do whatever it takes to satisfy myself. As the world’s population increased and organized, village “I” was replaced by tribal “I”, then religious “I”, soon country “I” and now global “I” (of the willing …).

Living through a screening of co-directors/writers Bill Guttentag’s and Dan Sturman’s horrific chronicle of the 1937/8 Japanese invasion, devastation and occupation of Nanking (then the Chinese capital) creates a fervent wish to have nothing to do with our membership cards in the homo sapiens species. How could they rape, pillage and behead already homeless citizens and defeated soldiers? Why did the rest of the world remain largely mute as the slaughter continued unabated,—the notable exception being a group of foreigners (including a card-carrying Nazi) who had the courage and temerity to use their white-skin clout to stare down the invaders and fictionally create an artificial safe zone for the thousands upon thousands of refugees (the rich having left their countrymen long since) who had nowhere else to hide.

The archival footage and still photographs bring home the brutality that sickens more than shocks. How could they commit such indecent acts? The first-person recollections by the octogenarians+ on both sides of the “conflict” ring with teary truth and, in one case, a near-gleeful recount of bringing death to the helpless—thank God he’s not one of us.

Less effective were the professional actors who glued the production together as they read from the letters, diaries and journals of those no longer alive or able to speak for themselves. While the delivery was fine, the “newness” of their statements would have been more effective as voiceovers to the painstakingly hidden or smuggled out visual “proof” of the reckless acts of cowardly killings and selfish impregnation of the girls and boys whose only crime was to be young and—well, in most cases—still breathing.

As has been the case with other important films (cross-reference below) Kronos Quartet served up Phil Marshall’s original score with a gritty sense of style that was at one with the events on the screen. Less successful, and failing to make the point—much less enhance the proceedings—was the truncated version of the Marche funèbre from Beethoven’s “Erocia” Symphony. The Josef Krips/LSO “sample” was flabby and unfocussed; the miserable attempt of editing-to-fit-the-time-available another sad example of how tinkering with greatness can only result in art having the last laugh.

Necessarily, this film focuses on a chapter of history that is not well known. Its impact is considerable and despite some references to Japanese War Crimes meting out justice and let’s not take our sudden wrath out on today’s Japan, the opportunity to further underscore the much larger problem of “them is us” was missed. A reference or two to Mongolia and Tiananmen Square (not to mention Guantanamo Bay) might have immediately removed our collective scorn on the Japanese and put it where it truly belongs: with all of us. JWR

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