City of Life and Death opens with the Japanese Army marching upon the walled city of Nanjing (formerly Nanking), China. It looks like a modern version of a medieval city-state, a massive fortress sitting alone in a plain, but as the shelling starts, it is clear that it will fall to the greater numbers and superior firepower outside the walls. The people within the walls are prisoners and the Japanese invaders refuse to open the gates and let the civilians to flee. This mindset of complete victory defines everything that follows in the brutal Japanese invasion, occupation and devastation in what has become known as “The Rape of Nanjing.”
Spanning only a few months, from the attack by Japanese forces in late 1937 to the “formal” declaration of victory a few months later in 1938, City of Life and Death is a stark, grueling film: shot in black and white, short on dialogue, long on the atmosphere of chaos and terror, rich in detail and harrowing observations of life in a war culture where civilians are treated as inconveniences at best and spoils of war at worst. The passing of time and the marking of major events comes through letters and postcards. The focus isn’t on the big events of historical importance but on the day-to-day ordeal of the people within the walls and director Lu Chuan (Kekexili: Mountain Patrol) finds evocative and affecting details to suggest the greater canvas with small, personal illustrations. The scale and scope of the film is epic but the film focuses on the human details.
City of Life and Death is not a tale of survival. It is a fictionalized recreation of the historical record that dramatizes the real-life stories of people caught in the worst atrocity in the run up to World War II. The most famous of those people was John Rabe, a businessman who chose to remain in the occupied city and organize and enforce a safety zone for the Chinese civilians trapped in the city by the occupation. What makes him such a fascinating true story is that he was a German Nazi who defied the command of Germany’s (then) unofficial allies and, eventually, his own government until he was eventually ordered to return home. Other films have focused on his role and the parts played by other Europeans in the city — the documentary Nanjing (2007), German production John Rabe (2009) and (in echoes and references) the American production The Children of Huang Shi (2008) — but here (played by John Paisley) he is simply one of many stories of civilians and soldiers. City of Life and Death is from China and it puts the Chinese experience front and center, from soldiers to civilians.