Flipping the channel from current to past wartime atrocities, Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman’s powerful doc chronicles (on Web mogul Ted Leonsis’s dime) the near-total destruction of a Chinese city and its inhabitants by Imperial Japanese troops in 1937. The directors assemble the requisite archival material and expert/participant interviews for their project, which was inspired by author Iris Chang’s controversial 1997 megaseller, The Rape of Nanking. The difference is that the gruesome contemporary footage they employ has rarely been seen, and the first-person recollections of Nanking’s survivors are as uncommonly wrenching as their captors were brutally thorough. These latter sequences are easily the film’s most affecting, but the focus is nevertheless on several Western expat missionaries and professionals who remained in the city to aid its native residents.
Various letters and diary entries by these figures—including American teacher Minnie Vautrin and John Rabe, a German businessman who tragically believed Hitler would intervene in the slaughter—are read on camera by the likes of Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemingway and a teleprompter-hypnotized Jürgen Prochnow, and the effect gives their words emotional immediacy even as it flirts with historically myopic, Hollywood-style self-congratulation. Thankfully, the clarity of the impressions the actors vocalize withstands the gimmickry.