Every war has its atrocities, when the ugly side of humanity reveals itself in all its rage, fear, and hate.
The Nanking massacre of 1937 - when Japanese troops rampaged through the old Chinese capital, raping women and children, mowing down prisoners of war in bursts of gunfire, looting and pillaging - certainly stands as one of military history's darker moments. There are still heated debates between the Japanese and Chinese about exactly what happened (the Imperial Japanese Army long ago destroyed its records), how many were raped (estimates range from 20,000 to 30,000), and the number of citizens and unarmed soldiers killed (200,000 to 300,000), but no one questions that what transpired was horror on a massive scale.
City of Life and Death, Chinese filmmaker Lu Chuan's unsettlingly beautiful black-and-white, wide-screen account of those nightmare six weeks, re-creates that horror in ways that are at once allusive and lucid, mixing cinematic impressionism with documentary-like detail. The camera pans across the smoldering rubble to capture the faces of Japanese soldiers and Chinese civilians, and the look of adrenalized dread is there in the eyes of victim and perpetrator alike.
Like Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket or Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima, Lu's elaborately staged production is very much an antiwar war movie. Lu uses a group of Chinese and Western refugees - including a bespectacled Nazi Party official, John Rabe (John Paisley), and an American teacher, Minnie Vautrin (Beverly Peckous) - as the audience's surrogates, offering a foreigner's view of the conflagration. The refugees set up a "safety zone" within the city, but it isn't long before the area is overrun with Japanese soldiers. The violence and violation within its walls are hard to bear.
But Lu wants us to bear it, and bear witness. City of Life and Death is not simply a condemnation of the Japanese soldiers and the officers in charge - there's a chilling moment when one of the young Japanese recruits, on patrol in the streets, breaks rank and screams out his desire to go home. He cannot stand where he is, or what he has been party to.
His terror is ours. And history's.