Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
In 1937, invading Japanese soldiers descended upon the Chinese capital of Nanking, leading to one of World War II’s most horrific scenes. The infamous siege eventually claimed the lives of more than 200,000 civilians and left countless homeless, orphaned, or wounded. Nanking tells the story of these agonizing months through eyewitness accounts by survivors and archival footage, largely focusing on the story of the Western missionaries and businessmen who saved lives by establishing a 2-square-mile safe zone for Chinese civilians. Actors (Woody Harrelson and Mariel Hemingway among them) give voice to these individuals through staged readings drawn from letters and journal entries written during the siege. The performances are harrowing enough, but it’s the actual survivor stories that cut to the bone. Men and women weep while recounting the murder of their loved ones, the destruction of their homes, and the violent sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of Imperial Japanese soldiers. Nanking’s most disturbing and controversial moments come during a series of grim interviews with surviving Japanese soldiers. These men—all deep into old age—provide their accounts of the atrocities but show surprisingly little remorse, openly admitting heinous crimes. “The rape was not really good for anything,” admits one former soldier. “It’s not really good unless you’re both into it.” Dreadful yet unblinking moments like these allow Nanking some unique perspective on the scope of the siege, whose specifics are mired in debate and controversy to this day.