The Nanking Nightmare

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Chinese citizens in a photograph from the documentary Nanking

In the early winter of 1937, Japanese troops, having conquered Shanghai, moved on to envelop Nanking, then the capital of China. After a furious aerial bombardment, they entered the city virtually without opposition. By this time most of its wealthier residents had fled, leaving the city to the poor and to the remnants of the Chinese army. There followed what is probably the most horrific single occurrence in the history of modern warfare, the "rape of Nanking," as it quickly came to be known. Over the course of the next few months the Japanese army essentially became an ungovernable mob, and before some semblance of order was restored, an estimated 200,000 Chinese were killed and 20,000 women were brutally raped. Well before Hitler's Holocaust in Europe was planned, let alone set in implacable motion, the events in Nanking essentially established the paradigm for the conduct of World War II. By which one means that both sides subsequently conducted unrestricted warfare against civilian populations, making no distinction between them and military forces. If there is a difference between Nanking and the fire-bombing of cities like London, Dresden, Hamburg and Tokyo, it is that in Nanking the depredations took place on the ground, face to face — while air raids, of course, are conducted from a distance, with the bombers unable to witness the death agonies of their anonymous victims.

The years have passed — 70 of them — other horrors have piled up and the Japanese, who have never fully come to grips with their war crimes, have taken to referring to Nanking as an "incident." It remained for the Chinese-American writer Iris Chang to remind us, a decade ago, in a book full of passages too ugly to read, of just how monstrous this crime against humanity was. She also reminded us that a handful of Americans and Europeans — doctors, teachers, missionary ministers — did their best to save what lives they could. It is this story that writer-directors Bill Guttenberg and Dan Sturman retell in Nanking.

They are the beneficiaries of a curious irony. The Japanese would have been pleased if there had been no neutral eyewitnesses to this atrocity. They would have been even more pleased if no camera had been present. But the foreigners were educated and articulate people. They kept diaries, they wrote letters, they were determined to set down, on a daily basis, what they saw and experienced. Moreover, there were photographers, amateur and professional, of all nationalities using still and movie equipment to make a visual record of life in the tortured city. I have rarely, if ever, seen a documentary reconstruction of a historical event that is so rich in firsthand (and well-preserved) photographic material. All the directors did was assemble a cast of actors (some of them as well-known as Woody Harrelson and Mariel Hemingway, some of them unknown) and set them to reading the written record, cutting away to the moving footage, still pictures and a few interviews, as often as possible.

Besides bearing insistent witness, the foreigners also created a "Safety Zone," some two miles wide, into which perhaps two or three hundred refugees were crammed, with just enough food and medical supplies to survive — if the foreigners, among them, ironically, a German business man who was a Nazi party member — could protect its boundaries. This they — imperfectly — did until the worst was over in March 1938. They even managed to smuggle out some of their pictures to alert the world to this atrocity. Later, they made direct appeals to their governments, seeking some sort of (inadequate) redress, which arrived far too late, in the form of war crimes trials after hostilities ended.

The film makes no attempt to explain these events, and that is, I think, a defect. It merely summons us to witness, asks us to do what we can to prevent similar atrocities. Chang did a little better in her book, suggesting that ordinary Japanese soldiers were so miserably treated by their officers that when they were given the opportunity, they simply surrendered to animalistic instinct. That seems likely — but it also seems somehow inadequate. It occurs to one that this is a story that requires more thoughtful, even theoretical, probing.

Yet that is perhaps asking too much, One of this terrible tale's heroines is an American woman named Minnie Vautrin, headmistress of a missionary college for young women, a ferocious defender of the "Safety Zone," compassionate defender of its young women. She survived, went home and, a year to the day after leaving China, committed suicide. Eerily, Iris Chang, having rescued this narrative from oblivion, also committed suicide — perhaps because her book contains images that could never be erased from her consciousness. There are some stories that, if we become too intimate with them, have the power to destroy us. Seeing Nanking will not do that to a moviegoer. But it will remind the few who brave it that we are not always allowed the luxury of objective witness, that sometimes we are plunged into nightmares from which there is no surcease.