City of Life and Death / City of War

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Directors: Lu Chuan (City of Life and Death), Florian Gallenberger (City of War)

The Chinese capital of Nanjing fell to the advancing Japanese army on 13 December 1937. Over the following weeks occupying soldiers committed one of the most horrific war crimes in history. Up to 300,000 prisoners and civilians - men, women and children - were murdered, and tens of thousands of women were gang raped. The infamous Nanjing massacre is the subject of two new films this month.

Lu Chuan's City of Life and Death opens as Japanese troops take the city. General Lu, one of several characters the film's story is built around, leads a hopeless last-ditch resistance. When defeated, Chinese prisoners are simply lined up and shot or decapitated and thrown into mass graves or the nearby Yangzte River.

The bulk of the film centres on the Safety Zone created by a handful of Westerners who refused to leave the city. Despite continual harassment, the zone became a haven for thousands of Chinese, and undoubtedly prevented the death toll from rising even higher. The key individual in the zone was a German businessman, John Rabe.

Rabe is the subject of the film by German director Florian Gallenberger, City of War. Rabe was a curious character. A member of the Nazi party and managing director of Siemens's Nanjing operation, he nonetheless stayed on voluntarily to help with the Safety Zone. At one point he even toured the city, intervening to prevent rapes and murders. His Nazi membership gave him greater influence with the Japanese authorities, who were unwilling to cross their ally, symbolised in the film by refugees cowering under a huge Nazi flag, which the bombers overhead studiously avoid. Having lived in China for 27 years he was extremely naive about the Nazis in Germany and seems to have genuinely expected Hitler to intervene on behalf of the refugees.

But the focus on the remaining foreigners, who all survived, reduces the immediacy of the terror around them. Gallenberger tries to make a Hollywood-style drama out of the events, with a romance and a cliched enemies turning to friends relationship between Rabe and the doctor, Robert Wilson. The Chinese become simply passive victims and, with one exception, the Japanese are portrayed as cartoon baddies. A scene in which a group of young Chinese women are forced to strip seems gratuitous and particularly inappropriate given the appalling sexual violence that was actually inflicted at the time.

The heroes in Lu's film, like the teacher Miss Jiang or Rabe's assistant Mr Tang, are Chinese. The fear is made so much more real by the ever present threat of death to the major characters. But this isn't simply a story of good Chinese and evil Japanese. Tang's actions are ambiguous, and another central character is a Japanese soldier, Kadokawa, who is appalled by what he sees and searches forlornly for love amid the horror.

This more nuanced portrait of the perpetrators has drawn fierce criticism from some quarters in China. But watching believable human characters committing these inhuman acts only makes them more shocking.

What is only hinted at in Lu's film is that the brutality wasn't simply a case of soldiers running out of control - it came from the top echelons of the Japanese military. Long before they reached Nanjing the rank and file had been trained to kill the unarmed and defenceless. Officers forced soldiers to decapitate or bayonet captured Chinese. Gallenberger shows Prince Asaka, Emperor Hirohito's uncle and commander in chief at Nanjing, explicitly giving the order to execute all prisoners.

The Nanjing massacre has been a subject of controversy ever since it happened. Right wing Japanese militarists have tried to deny it ever happened, while in China it has been incorporated into a narrative of national humiliation and revival. There is the odd moment in Lu's film that seems to play to the mythology - Chinese prisoners shouting "Long live China!" just before being shot, for instance. But Lu's is certainly the better of the two films, offering an honest and powerful portrayal of the terrible suffering of the people of Nanjing, and of the courage of those who tried to resist.