He looks anxiously at the sky, watching the low-flying fighter planes drop their bombs into the fleeing crowd. It is December 1937, and German businessman John Rabe, the representative of the Siemens Group in the eastern Chinese city of Nanking, is witnessing Japanese fighter pilots as they attack the company's facility there, killing helpless civilians.
In that moment of despair, he suddenly has an idea. Rabe, a long-standing member of the Nazi Party, quickly orders his workers to unfurl an enormous swastika flag that the party had sent to him in China. Then Rabe and large numbers of Chinese crouch under the flag. The ruse works, and the Japanese, allied with the Germans, call off the attack.
The film "John Rabe," a biography of the "good German of Nanking," tells the story of a man who was born in Hamburg in 1882 and is still revered as a national hero in China today. Director Florian Gallenberger, 38, paints a jarring image which is no less bizarre for all of its historical accuracy: The swastika, a symbol of Nazi barbarity, is used to save the lives of innocent people.
The German-Chinese-French co-production, which cost €15 million ($20 million) to make, opened in German theaters this week. The film dives head first into sensitive territory. It is a heroic epic about a Nazi, albeit not a particularly fanatical one, who, driven by circumstance, reluctantly ends up saving the lives of innocent citizens. This is the sort of subject only American directors have taken on in the past, most notably with Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winning film "Schindler's List" in 1993. In German movie theaters, however, the concept of the "good Nazi" has always been taboo.
But now German directors, encouraged by the success of "Valkyrie," a drama about would-be Hitler assassin Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, starring Tom Cruise, are discovering German moviegoers' interest in ambivalent national heroes. Niama, a German production company, is working on a film about Robert Bosch, who lived from 1861 to 1942. The industrialist from the southwestern German region of Swabia, who invented the magnetic fuse among other things, supported the liberal resistance movement against Hitler during the Third Reich, partly with revenues from the defense industry.
Several films about German icons have already been shot or are in planning. They include film biographies, or biopics, about German abbess Hildegard von Bingen, writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, theologian and philosopher Albert Schweitzer and Romy Schneider. The lives of famous Germans, relegated to the television domain until now (including the 2009 TV series "Krupp"), are now being portrayed on the silver screen. Suddenly prominent historical figures are reappearing in larger-than-life form, figures admired for their good works and their role in ordinary German life.
For decades, the concept of the national hero was seen as suspect in German cinema, especially after the Nazis' portrayal of questionable figures as real heroes, part of their effort to develop a mythical German narrative. Meanwhile, directors in other countries, like the United States, France and Great Britain, made films about composers Ludwig van Beethoven and Robert Schumann, military commander Erwin Rommel and flying ace Manfred von Richthofen, the "Red Baron." It wasn't until 2008, almost 40 years after the American spectacle about Richthofen, that a German version was produced.
The biopic, after thriving in the 1950s, was avoided for decades because historical use of the genre was so problematic in Germany. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels commissioned directors to shoot films about Otto von Bismarck, the founder of the German Reich, colonial conqueror Carl Peters and South African Boer leader Ohm Krüger, so that he could use them as propaganda tools. Even famous names like Baroque sculptor and architect Andreas Schlüter, poet Friedrich Schiller and physicians Paracelsus and Robert Koch were brought in to serve Goebbels' purpose of reinterpreting history.
Like the genre of the mountain film, which the Nazis and director Leni Riefenstahl also appropriated, it took the German biopic half a century to shed its reputation of being a nationalist genre. Only now, after a worldwide biography trend in literature, television and the cinema has persisted for several years, do German filmmakers feel emboldened enough to try it again.
As always, Hollywood paved the way. Since the turn of the millennium the number of biopics has broken all records. Films have retold the stories of singer Johnny Cash ("Walk the Line"), billionaire Howard Hughes ("Aviator"), scientist Alfred Kinsey ("Kinsey") and former President George W. Bush ("W."). The French have made films about former President François Mitterrand, singer Edith Piaf and author Françoise Sagan.
"The biopic does extremely well in times of national crisis," says American film expert Diane Negra. A particularly large number of biographies were filmed during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The American-style retelling of the lives of heroic figures apparently has had more impact on film audiences than almost any other genre. They tell of the triumph of the individual over adverse circumstances and dastardly fellow human beings and celebrate a country that gives anyone, no matter how headstrong, the chance to go his own way and find happiness.
The American role models in biopics battle racism in "Ray," bigotry in "Kinsey" or their own schizophrenia in "A Beautiful Mind." They suffer, because their music, their research or their ideas are usually ahead of the time. Nevertheless, they never lose faith in their country, because they know, deep down, that people like them make America what it is. Hollywood biopics are usually exceedingly patriotic.
German film biographies, on the other hand, cannot be nearly as patriotic, because they often chart the lives of people who become heroes by rebelling against their country. In Nikolai Müllerschön's aviator epic "The Red Baron," Manfred von Richthofen (played by actor Matthias Schweighöfer) even opposes the Kaiser, dares to question his rallying calls and, in the trenches of his own troops, behaves as if he had landed behind enemy lines. When he takes off into the sky, it is as if he were trying to escape Germany.
Bavarian mountain climbers Andreas Hinterstoisser and Toni Kurz, who attempted to climb the north face of the Eiger in Switzerland 1936 and died in the process, are lauded in Philipp Stölzl's film "Nordwand" ("North Face") as sports heroes who sought to escape the clutches of Nazi propaganda. In the film, they leave behind the depths of German chauvinism and scale heights where all that counts is fairness and solidarity, but not nationality.
In diva films, such as "Marlene," Joseph Vilsmaier's film about Marlene Dietrich, the heroines routinely turn their backs on Germany. Although Vilsmaier sticks his leading actress, Katja Flint, into a dirndl and decoratively drapes her in front of a roaring mountain stream, when one of Goebbels' envoys says to her: "The Reich needs you," she disdainfully replies: "I don't need the Reich."
In "Hilde," directed by Kai Wessel, which is currently in German movie theaters, actress Hildegard Knef (played by Heike Makatsch), after her brief nude appearance in the film "Die Sünderin" ("The Sinner") in the early 1950s, faces widespread indignation because of her supposed shamelessness. She is even denied a table in a luxury restaurant. In one scene, the bitter protagonist says that what is truly outrageous is that the film has Germans more upset than the crimes of the Nazis.
In their time, Dietrich and Knef were both berated by German society as licentious traitors. But the insistence with which many of the new biopics portray the suffering of their protagonists in Germany sometimes seems forced, almost like a severability clause in a contract. It makes you wonder how 1950s Germany will be portrayed in the planned movie about Romy Schneider (with German actress Yvonne Catterfeld). As a tedious, bourgeois place?
The protagonists can rise up against the powers that be out of noble-mindedness, as in "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days" (2005), or self-conceit, as in "The Baader Meinhof Complex" (2008), and they can struggle against Germany or leave it behind. But they are never permitted to feel truly at home in Germany. Indeed, it is only consistent that the protagonists in the most recent films only learn how to be good and German at the same time when they are in other countries.
Robert Bosch, John Rabe and Albert Schweitzer were global citizens who became familiar with foreign countries and cultures early in their lives. Bosch, a mechanic, was only 20 when, in 1882, he went abroad to work in the United States and Great Britain for the next four years.
Rabe was in his early 20s when he went to Africa in 1902, and he traveled to China in 1908. Schweitzer (1875 to 1965), an Alsatian by birth, was in his late 30s when he founded the Lambaréné bush hospital in the West African country of Gabon.
Producer Thomas Reisser, discussing his project, describes Bosch as a visionary of globalization. "He believed that world peace could be achieved through economic integration." The film, which will be shot next year, is intended to show that Bosch, although he undoubtedly profited from the Nazi war effort, protected many Jews from Nazi deportation.
"We are gradually learning how to portray our national heroes on the screen without damning or glorifying them," says Reisser. "We don't want white knights, nor do we want sinister characters. In a biopic, grey is the most exciting color."
"Schweitzer," which is expected to be released this Christmas, and in which Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbé plays the "good man of Lambaréné," the missionary doctor, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1952, is not glorified as a purely good person. The film describes a man plagued by doubts, who cannot decide between his humanitarian work in Africa and his political involvement in the global anti-nuclear movement.
In "John Rabe," which has garnered seven nominations for the German Film Award, the Siemens man, who is preparing to leave China, orders his Chinese employees to assemble on the factory grounds. They are to greet Rabe's successor in Nanking, a stalwart Nazi, with a Hitler salute.
"You wouldn't believe how long it took them to learn that," Rabe says, with a mixture of pride and paternalistic arrogance. The film paints him as a politically conservative man who recognizes China's promise as a growth market early on.
When the military tension peaks in Nanking, with the advance of Japanese troops towards the city, Rabe begs his superiors in Germany not to close the company's office there. Like Robert Bosch, John Rabe appears to seamlessly combine his business sense with philanthropy.
Of course, the portrayal of these men as German entrepreneurs driven to be humanists by economic pragmatism -- because they need and value workers -- is a little too good to be true. Nevertheless, director and screenwriter Gallenberger exhibits some skill when he elucidates how Rabe's abilities as a businessman allow him to save lives.
When the Japanese kill Rabe's Chinese chauffeur, a Japanese officer promises to send him a replacement. Rabe, trying to remain cool, begins to bargain. The driver, he says, spoke German and was an almost irreplaceable loss. Rabe demands 20 men, who have already been sentenced to death, in restitution, and the Japanese officer agrees. Struggling to keep his composure, Rabe selects the men -- to save their lives.
In late 1937, the real John Rabe used his German talent for organization and, with the energetic help of Americans living in Nanking at the time, established a four-square-kilometer (1.5-square-mile) safety zone in which more than 200,000 Chinese were able to take refuge, thereby escaping death.
At the end of the film, as Rabe is about to leave Nanking by ship, hundreds of grateful Chinese stand in the harbor, chanting his name in farewell. It is a moving and dramatic, but also slightly awkward, moment. It will probably take German moviegoers, self-conscious about their history, a while longer to get used to feeling grand emotions for their national heroes.