Bright Lights Film Journal

History or Humanity? On Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death: A Nietzschean Perspective on Nanjing

“The monumental approach, as one would guess, takes history as something to be inspired by, as a record of human greatness that serves to encourage similar greatness by individuals in future times; in the case of City of Life and Death, it is the various acts of compassion and solidarity that play this role.”

In 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army stormed into the city of Nanjing in China, causing massive physical and human devastation, in what is now known as the "Rape of Nanjing." The incident, and the broader scheme of Japanese militarism and imperialism in which it took place, is today still a constant source of political tension between the two nation-states and their respective citizens. The 2009 film City of Life and Death, by Chinese auteur Lu-Chuan, is a bold attempt to dig up and redefine the specter of Nanjing that continues to haunt the East Asian consciousness. But instead of ideologically measuring one side or the other on a Manichean scale, Lu chooses to focus on the instances of human compassion and solidarity that are able to manifest themselves even in the mindless, brutal atmosphere he so effectively creates within the cinematic world.

What one comes to grasp after seeing the film is the ultimate importance of history as first and foremost a study of the human condition, and of the art of living itself, as opposed to scientifically detached observation and categorization. The continuities of human consciousness and memory mean that our experiences of the past are necessarily intertwined with those of the present; as individuals inescapably grounded in a specific historical period, we are unable to avoid this contemporizing process. Furthermore, it is something that must be embraced, for it allows us to incorporate these historical "peaks" (and crevasses) of human experience into our future actions and values. But in this integration of the present with the past there is the danger of a selective blindness toward the past that must be understood and overcome. However, the purpose of history as a guide to the present and the future, to "life," must still be emphasized over the "neutral," "objective" study of history as "fact," "statistic," or what Nietzsche, in his essay "The Use and Abuse of History, refers to disparagingly as the "World Process" — that is, an attitude of detached passivity toward a historical narrative that is falsely seen as predetermined and unalterable.

City of Life and Death's narrative shifts between several characters on both sides of the conflict, which allows the film to largely transcend distinctions of nationality and ideology and focus on the more basic human tragedy underlying it. One is never informed of the strategic or ideological Japanese justifications for the various massacres and battles throughout the film; there is no attempt to rationalize the violence. Instead the viewer is presented with a war that is absurd, irrational, and pointless, and this nonpartisan alignment allows for the emergence of a more universal, humanistic perspective that links the various key characters in the film through their shared ethical commitments. These include Kadokawa, a Japanese soldier (Hideo Nakaizumi), Lu Jianxiong (Liu Ye), a Chinese resistance fighter, John Rabe (John Paisley), a German who ran a demilitarized safety zone within Nanjing, his assistant, Mr. Tang (Fan Wei), and several female characters of both Japanese and Chinese origin, all of whom are faced with sexual violence and slavery due to the notorious Japanese "comfort women" policies.

This humanistic impulse manifests itself in various ways, but is mostly emphasized in authentic moments of kindness, empathy, and bravery that shine through the madness. At the end of the film, Kadokawa, under orders to execute two Chinese civilians, one of whom is a young boy, instead decides to release them into the wilderness, much to the amazement but also admiration of his inferior officer. Yet even this act of compassion is insignificant in comparison to what he has previously been required to do and see; under the weight of an intolerable conscience, he kills himself. Earlier in the film he also falls in love with a Japanese prostitute brought in to satisfy the soldiers' animalistic needs; his genuine feelings of care and affection for her contrast strikingly with the objectifying and dehumanizing attitudes of the other soldiers. John Rabe, the only nonfictional character in the film, was a member of the Nazi Party, a group, like the Japanese, condemned for its role in the Second World War. Along with several other missionaries, he saved large numbers of Chinese civilians by instating a safety zone within Nanjing, and his inclusion further demonstrates the director's commitment to a study of war centered on individual human beings rather than political identities.

None of this is meant to imply that City of Life and Death neglects or glosses over the horrifying events that took place in the conflict; on the contrary, the violence is replicated in a brutally frank fashion, and it would be very difficult indeed to remain complacent toward what takes place on screen. Yet director Lu is able to somehow give his viewer a strong sense of disgust toward what happens without translating this into a simplistic emotional hatred of the Japanese. By using an aural and visual style that is highly choreographed — such as a tribal drum that booms throughout the soundtrack and shot transitions following a similar rhythm — he positions the individual Japanese soldiers within an ominous, impersonal, and unstoppable war machine that both absorbs and controls them. One comes to feel that the massacre was not caused by a specific depravity that somehow developed amongst the Japanese, but rather that it was the product of a contingent set of conditions, social realities, and ideologies that could arguably spring up in any human community. Lu himself confirms this, stating that it was his intention to show "the basic truth that the massacre is not a special talent of the Japanese people. It's a talent of human beings, you know? All kinds of people kill all kinds of people. The devil is always in everyone's heart, so as human beings we need to be very careful . . . The Japanese are normal, ordinary people just like us. War is the thing that makes people transform into animals" (DownWithTyranny).

Incorporating the discussion of the film into a wider philosophical and theoretical context, what is ultimately emphasized is the primary importance of historical knowledge as a guide to human existence, both as something that can inspire future actions and as a critical tool that must inform and place those future actions within a certain system of values and constraints. In The Use and Abuse of History, Nietzsche argues in favor of an attitude toward historical study that prioritizes those elements that are intertwined with and enrich life in the present and future, whilst demoting those that are seen as a detached, "objective" accumulation of facts, motivations, causes and effects, and so on. He distinguishes between three approaches that all share a desire to integrate the past into the present. These are the monumental, the antiquarian, and the critical approaches, and each has a certain relevance when one is considering the Nanjing massacre and the film it inspired.

The monumental approach, as one would guess, takes history as something to be inspired by, as a record of human greatness that serves to encourage similar greatness by individuals in future times; in the case of City of Life and Death, it is the various acts of compassion and solidarity that play this role. The individual driven by this approach believes that "whatever once was able to expand the idea of 'Human Being' and to satisfy it more beautifully must constantly be present in order that it remain eternally possible" (Nietzsche). Therefore one must always retain a memory of the past in order to constantly keep the horizons of the future as wide as possible, for an individual can only act on that which he or she is able to conceive of, and so here the past acts as a reference point for that which was possible, and which therefore still is and will be possible. One can see how this method is essential for understanding the value of Lu's film; what point is there in showing the noble acts of Kadokawa, Rabe, and others if not to highlight the capacity of the human soul for such actions even in the most oppressive of circumstances, and to therefore insist on the possibility of such actions even in the worst of possible future situations? Furthermore, there is a preventative aspect involved in this approach, in that an appreciation of the meaning behind such great actions is likely to make the reflecting individual feel the need to prevent such atrocities from reoccurring in future.

On the other hand, Nietzsche also warns of the dangers that can arise when the monumental method "rules over the other forms of analyzing" — that is, the antiquarian and critical methods. If this takes place, the "past itself suffers harm . . . really large parts of it are forgotten, despised, and flow off like an uninterrupted grey flood." In the case of the Nanjing massacre, monumental history may be applied by those with various unsavory motives, such as those informed by nationalism, ethno-centrism, or political interests, in order to bury historical facts that damage their goals and promote those that serve them. The Japanese may try, as they often do, to minimize the atrocities committed and focus only on the "bravery" of the Japanese soldiers, as was implied by the visits of a Japanese prime minister to a shrine housing the corpses of Class "A" war criminals, or they may attempt to modify Japanese textbooks covering the conflict in order to focus on the "honorable" or "reasonable" motivations that were supposedly behind imperialism (BBC, 2001, 2006). The Chinese, on the other hand, are more likely to demonize the Japanese beyond recognition by emphasizing the intrinsic moral superiority and innocence of their people in relation to the purely evil Japanese "animals." In both cases there is a selective blindness that characterizes a potential downside of monumental history.

In order to combat this tendency, it is important to balance the monumental method with the other two forms of evaluating history, but given the nature of antiquarian history it seems that only critical history is capable of this. The antiquarian method as described by Nietzsche refers to an attitude of reverence and worship toward the past, which both contextualizes and enriches the present as a continuation of an honorable tradition. In the context of Nanjing, such an attitude would be considered highly immoral and unacceptable in modern cultural or political discourse. Whilst there are certainly nationalist groups in Japan that might hold a reverential attitude toward the Japanese actions in China, such an approach is only likely to increase and deepen the selective blindness that can arise from the monumental approach. The Chinese, on the other hand, are unlikely to hold any warm sentiments toward the events of Nanjing, so antiquarian history is inapplicable in their case.

Critical history, on the other hand, is relevant to a discussion of the Nanjing massacre, and furthermore its goals resonate with those of director Lu Chuan, who wanted to make a film "not against a certain nation, but against the war" (De Semlyen). This approach reflects Nietzsche's description of the person following the critical method who drags "the past before the court of justice, investigating it meticulously, and finally condemning it." He further argues that it is an approach demanded by life in order to make it "quite clear how unjust the existence of something or other is . . . how much this thing really merits destruction." City of Life and Death therefore applies the critical method to the concept, institution, and practice of war by dragging it before the "court of justice" and condemning it for its tragic consequences for humankind. If one adopts such an approach, it is almost impossible to engage in the selective blindness that can take place when the monumental approach is applied wrongly, as the critical impulse is unlikely to allow atrocities or certain hidden facts to stay buried. If combined positively, the monumental and critical methods lead to an understanding of history that cherishes the moral contributions of its most noble protagonists without necessarily accepting the societal structures and institutions surrounding them.

Despite these qualifications, the approach to history as a tool for the living must be preferred to a view of it as detached, objective categorization, or if you like, history as "social science." When approached as a scientific endeavor, history tends to ignore or suppress the subjective experiences of particular individuals in favor of impersonal, numerical, and value-neutral descriptions of past events. It attempts to apply the same methods of description and observation that are used in the natural sciences for the study of non-human objects. Yet this move is a mistake, because unlike the natural sciences, the objects of historical observation are conscious human beings, meaning that consumers of historical knowledge have the possibility of judging, relating to, opposing, or imagining themselves in the position of the historical individual or group in question. They can make value statements about these human historical phenomena, which furthermore may even come to form the foundations of their values themselves. If they are inspired by events in history — for example, by the actions of John Rabe — they may use these events as a benchmark for their own future actions, or a foundation for their own moral identity or a sense of meaning in the world. Similarly, those reviewing the history of Nanjing may take the atrocities and their effects on sentient human beings as a guide for what must be despised and defeated in the lives of all present and future human beings.

In order for these practices to be possible, one must evaluate history from the perspective of subjective human experience and therefore prioritize the existential, emotional, and intellectual effects of historical events on individual human agents, rather than trying to eliminate these aspects in favor of dehumanized grand narratives. Nevertheless, history as objective observation is important in providing an empirical ground on which one can make calculations, settle matters of factual dispute, and so on. Most importantly, however, it is able to counter the tendency of the subjective approach to history to lapse into selective blindness. To conclude, both approaches to history must be preserved, and both must remain in service to each other. The subjective approach to history should dominate but not eliminate the scientific approach.