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Culture

Film about Nazi humanitarian in China wins major German prize

A film based on the true story of a Nazi who helped save 200,000 Chinese civilians from the Nanking Massacre has dominated the German Film Awards, winning prizes for best film, actor, art direction and costume design.

An image of the two actors in a scene from John Rabe

Ulrich Tukur plays the lead role of John Rabe while Dagmar Manzel plays his wife Dora

"John Rabe" is a German-Chinese co-production that sheds light on the little-known story of a German businessman who came to be known as "China's Oskar Schindler".

Born in Hamburg, Germany, John Rabe spent much of his adult life in China, working as an executive for German industrial giant Siemens.

While most foreigners fled the national capital Nanking when Japanese forces invaded China in 1937, Rabe stayed behind and helped form the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone, which provided fleeing Chinese civilians with food and shelter.

Rabe was elected as its leader, in part because of his Nazi party membership and the existence of the Anti-Comintern Pact between Japan and Germany.

An historic photograph of John Rabe

John Rabe's Nazi credentials saved thousands of Chinese civilians from death

While Japanese forces agreed not to attack areas that did not contain Chinese military forces, Rabe and the international committee managed to persuade the Chinese government to move all its troops away from the city's Western quarter.

Although the resulting safe haven measured just seven square kilometers, it was credited with saving between 200,000 and 250,000 Chinese people from the wave of killings, rapes and looting that followed the city's fall.

Disputed history

The occupation of Nanking was one of the bloodiest episodes of Japan's invasion. Chinese accounts say 300,000 people were killed in atrocities committed by Japanese troops, while an allied tribunal put the death toll at about 200,000.

But some conservative Japanese politicians and scholars deny a massacre took place. It remains a heated political issue in Japan.

Japanese troops march into a Chinese government building used as barracks after the capture and occupation of Nanking.

The fall of Nanking was followed by six weeks of atrocities by Japanese troops

Florian Gallenberger, director of "John Rabe", says he hopes his film can spark a healthy debate in Japan on the Nanking Massacre as well as Japan's war-time past.

"I hope the film won't be silenced in Japan," he told Reuters news agency at the Berlin Film Festival earlier in 2009.

"I'd very much hope this film could help get an opening-up of discussion going in Japan."

Tops and Flops

Presented annually since 1951, the German Film Awards is the world's most lucrative film competition, and is regarded as Germany's answer to Hollywood's Oscars and Britain's BAFTA awards.

Its coveted "Lola" trophies are accompanied by 2.8 million euros ($3.7 million) in government-funded prizes, which are distributed among the dozens of nominated films as an indirect subsidy for future projects.

A promotional poster for John Rabe

"John Rabe" had a slow start at the German box office

With more than 1,100 members of the German Film Academy casting votes in 15 categories, the second big winner of 2009 was Andreas Dresen, who finally won best director for his film "Cloud 9" -- a romantic comedy about senior citizens' love lives that also won Ursula Werner the prize for best actress.

The evening's big loser, however, was Germany's Oscar-nominated drama "The Baader Meinhof Complex".

Ironically, the film about the Red Army Faction's terror campaign in the 1970s was a major success at the German box office, while "John Rabe" suffered a disappointing start last month.

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