This is the fourth in a short series by Larry Mark
NANKING, a documentary by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman about the Japanese atrocities in Nanking, China prior to World War II, had its world premiere at Sundance this past weekend.
I came away from this film wanting it to be shown in every American and Japanese school and home.
While most Jews are familiar with the Nazi Holocaust and its atrocities, and some have an inkling of the German Jews who found refuge from Hitler in Shanghai, few know about the Japanese destruction of Nanking (now called Nanjing) in 1937 and 1938, and the role of two dozen Americans and a German Nazi in the saving of over 200,000 Chinese lives.
NANKING: EVEN IN THE DARKEST OF TIMES, THERE IS LIGHT shows the power of documentary filmmaking. The film details how the Japanese subjected the temporary capital of China, Nanking, to months of aerial bombings, followed by a ground assault that left the city in ruins.
A small group of Westerners banded together to create a Safety Zone, where 200,000 Chinese found refuge from the Japanese.
The story is told with recollections by actual Chinese survivors, by Japanese soldiers who are still alive, and by readings from the letters and diaries of eyewitnesses. These readings feature Woody Harrelson and Mariel Hemingway.
Over the course of less than 2 months, Japanese soldiers raped approximately 20,000 women, and then usually stabbed them to death when they were finished; and murdered 200,000 of Nanking’s Chinese residents. A group of 22 Americans and Europeans however, were able to save 200,000. One of the saviors, a devoted Nazi, later returned to Germany, where he was ostracized and forced into poverty.
Just as Bitberg, a cemetery that includes Nazi SS troops, exists in Germany, NANKING shows that in Japan, a memorial to the leaders of the atrocities was built and remains to focal point and celebratory site for Japanese nationalists. The Yakasuna shrine in Tokyo includes tributes to fourteen Japanese Class A war criminals. The rejection of Japanese guilt is so great in Japan, that Japanese crew members and three associate producers hired for the Japanese segments of this film quit the project and refused to work on it.
The genesis of this documentary occurred when Ted Leonsis, Vice-Chairman of AOL, while on vacation, read a copy Iris Chang’s obituary in The New York Times and became interested in her book, THE RAPE OF NANKING, that contributed to her depression and suicide at the age of 36 in 2005. For several days, the picture of Chang kept staring at Leonsis (I suppose that housekeeping did not empty trash regularly). Was it a message from beyond the grave?
Leonsis decided to keep the obituary and read Chang’s award winning book. Afterwards, he realized, with the anniversary of the December 1937 atrocities approaching, he had a great story that needed to be told. And fortunately the film will be distributed before the 70th anniversary.
Hopefully, every school child in America will know the name of Minnie Vautrin and the other Westerners, who in the face of the Japanese war machine, saved countless lives. Vautrin, like the author of the book, later committed suicide from the stress and trauma of the events.
While the Sundance opening film, CHICAGO 10, is hoping to spur young American to take a stand and become politically active, I believe that NANKING is better positioned to accomplish this and easily more inspiring and riveting.