Four years before Pearl Harbor, Japan was already on the march in China, grabbing territory in its quest for imperial expansion. After Shanghai fell, Japanese troops set their sights on Nanking, the capital of China at the time. It was just 160 miles up the Yangtze River.
The events later known as the rape of Nanking happened quickly, over just six horrific weeks at the end of 1937 and into 1938, and because the city was so cut off at the time and the war went on for eight more years, much of the story went untold for decades. It wasn’t until writer Iris Chang documented the tragedy in her 1998 book The Rape of Nanking that the true scope of the horror was made apparent. It was that book that inspired Nanking, a highly effective documentary that uses interesting techniques to tell its remarkable story.
While 200,000 civilians and soldiers died in Nanking and perhaps 20,000 women were raped in those six weeks, the toll would have been much higher had it not been for a group of 22 foreigners who lived and worked in Nanking and who set out to create a sort of safety zone where refugees from the bombed-out city could be protected. In the film, these brave people are portrayed by actors in costume who read their diary entries into the camera. Most prominent are Mariel Hemingway as Minnie Vautrin, a professor at a women’s college whose goal was to save her students; Woody Harrelson as Bob Wilson, one of the last doctors in Nanking; and Jurgen Prochnow as John Rabe, a Nazi businessman who became the de facto mayor of the safety zone.
Interspersed with their testimony are stories from actual Nanking survivors, now old and withered, who recount nightmares of rape, murder, and mass executions. One man recalls seeing both his mother and baby brother bayoneted. A woman, 12 at the time, remembers allowing herself to be raped to save the life of her grandfather, who was trying to protect her from the Japanese. A third witness says a soldier took a huge sword and split his sister in two vertically, from head to toe. Rare footage shot by the foreigners and smuggled out at the time (to disbelief and indifference, it should be noted) is almost unbearable to watch.