Nanking – DVD Review

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As a student in America, the emphasis is usually given to the Nazis when studying World War II. Everyone has heard of Adolf Hitler, the Holocaust, and all of the terrible acts that the Nazis committed. I remember studying World War II and hearing all about the war in Germany, the invasion of Normandy, D-Day, Pearl Harbor and then all of a sudden, the U.S. gets involved and bombs Japan. I remember thinking as a kid, why Japan and not Germany? I mean, if we’ve got to bomb someone, why them? I knew that they had been allied with Germany, but other than Pearl Harbor, what have they really done? Has something been left out of the history books?

After watching Nanking, now I know.

In 1937, Nanking was the bustling, flourishing capital of China. The streets were busy, the city was crowded and the people were successful. But in December 1937, the Japanese army invaded Shanghai, a large city 130 miles south of Nanking. They murdered and pillaged and announced they were headed north towards Nanking. On December 13, 1937, the Japanese army invaded the capital and began a six-week long occupation of the city, leaving the beautiful city in ruins, murdering and raping the people. In fact, the numbers of people murdered and raped were so high, this period of Japanese occupation is known historically as the “Rape of Nanking.”

In this eye-opening documentary, the events of the occupation of Nanking are told by actual Chinese survivors who were children at the time, Japanese soldiers, and by actors who read from actual diaries from the handful of Westerners who stayed in Nanking to protect the people there. The Westerners in Nanking included John Rabe (Jurgen Prochnow, The Da Vinci Code, Beerfest, The Eye (2008)), a Nazi businessman, who created what is called the Nanking Safety Zone and therefore saved an estimated 250,000 people, and Minnie Vautrin (Mariel Hemingway, Superman IV, the Suicide Club) who created a safe haven for women at Ginling College, sometimes harboring up to 10,000 women in a college only designed to hold 300.

As compelling as it was to watch recognizable actors portray these real-life people who lived during such a time, the most moving accounts came from the aging survivors. One man tells the story of watching his mother die from bayonet stab wounds as she holds his baby brother. One woman tells of allowing herself to be raped by the Japanese army to spare her grandfather’s life. And then, in the movie’s perfect timing, after we hear these horrific accounts, we are introduced to surviving Japanese soldiers and we get to hear their side of the story. They talk candidly about the things they have done, some of them look regretful, while others talk about it like they would a sports game. Like it would be an everyday topic of conversation.

As my heart was going out to the people of China, the Japanese soldiers dropped this news: The “Rape of Nanking” is regarded as exaggeration by many people in Japan. While they acknowledge atrocities were committed, they do not believe that the numbers of people murdered and raped is accurate.

Nanking has opened my eyes to a brutal time in history that I had learned nothing about in all of the history classes I’ve taken. Directors Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman have exceptionally crafted a film that is both educational, moving, and factually based. It ahs piqued my interest in the subject matter and I intend to learn more about the tragedy at Nanking.

For additional viewing, Wikipedia mentions the 1944 Frank Capra film, The Battle of China, which contains actual footage shot by Westerner John Magee who was present in Nanking during the Japanese occupation, and the film The Last Emporer which contains stock footage of the Rape of Nanking. This stock footage was edited out of the Japanese version of the film.

Presented with your choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0 sound. The film is spoken partly in English, but mostly in Chinese with English subtitles and a little bit of Japanese with English subtitles. There is also the option of subtitles in Spanish or subtitles for the Deaf or Hearing Impaired. It looked like no dubbed version was available. The movie is also widescreen, with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The majority of the documentary looks like a PBS documentary: a montage of interviews and photographs, so the video quality isn’t a main focus with this DVD.

Sadly, there are no extras on this DVD save the film’s theatrical trailer.

Nanking is exactly what a documentary should be: non-opinionated, fact-based, thought-provoking, and moving. For all the history buffs who, like myself, didn’t know anything about this tragedy, and for everyone who would like to learn more about this dark chapter in China’s history.


Velocity/ThinkFilm presents Nanking. Directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman. Starring Jurgen Prochnow, Mariel Hemingway, Woody Harrelson, Leah Liang Lewis. Written by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman. Running time: 90 minutes. Rated R. Released on DVD: April 29, 2008. Available at