Saving Private Ryan & the Jewish Experience

Spielberg’s War: Saving Private Ryan & the Jewish Experience” is an excellent essay and a great companion to Rob Ager’s always-insightful film analyses.

“By having the most gruesome and realistic depictions of war at the beginning, Spielberg neatly turns the classic anti-war formula on its head. In most anti-war films, war is set up as good, only to be revealed as bad. In Saving Private Ryan the opposite happens: war is set up as bad, only for us to be gradually persuaded that it is good…. Instead, the Omaha Beach scene (which, if placed at the end of the film, would have caused us to be permanently repulsed at the brutality of mechanized warfare) simply serves to set up a film where war itself is ‘redeemed’.”

This is the best observation of the essay. This is the “lens” Spielberg establishes through which we are to make sense of the rest of the film’s events.

“Steamboat Willie becomes a metaphor for the innate villainy of the German – who is apparently destined by his very nature to repay this act of mercy by stabbing his captor in the back as soon as he turns away. The German is thus stripped of one of the essential elements of humanity: moral reciprocity.”

The ways in which the film dehumanizes the German soldier are many. Upham’s arc, for instance, serves as a rationalization for allied war crimes.

“The only way to justify this rate of exchange mathematically is to assume that Ryan’s life is simply worth more. But what World War II objective of negligible strategic value could Spielberg wish us think was worth sacrificing so many men over, if only so they could assuage their own guilt? The parallels with Spielberg’s own co-ethnics are too tempting to ignore. Ryan thus becomes an analogy for the Jewish people themselves, and the mission to save him simply a microcosm of the cause that makes the entire war moral in the first place – the task of ‘saving’ the Jewish race and destroying their historic enemy… The film thus essentially becomes a Jewish religious narrative. What other message can we take away than that the apparent purpose of gentile lives is to be sacrificed en masse to save the Chosen People?”

This is an interesting and plausible thesis, but I’m not sure I entirely buy it. It’s too long to go into here, but it pivots on competing theories about why & how the U.S. entered WW2 and under what pretenses. WW2 was a massively overdetermined historical event.

“But why then, if this film is about the Jewish experience, is it told from a gentile perspective, and not from a Jewish one? This method of storytelling is nothing new for Spielberg. It is no coincidence that both of his definitive depictions of the Holocaust and slavery (Schindler’s List and Amistad) are told not from the perspective of their victims, but of high-status gentiles intimately connected with their perpetration.”

This additional context for making sense of Spielberg’s narrative choice in Saving Private Ryan no doubt strengthens the more general theses of this essay.

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