Film Scouts Reviews

"Saving Private Ryan"

by Karen Jaehne

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There was no need to join the chorus of hosannas over the salvation of
Pvt. Ryan until I realized my duties as a film reviewer included those
of a dolmetcher. In talking to my friends and colleagues, I've
discovered an incredible misunderstanding of two critical moments of
the film. So listen up, all you non-German speakers, because you may
have missed themessage of the masterpiece.

In a movie where most of the dialog serves to register the shock of
battle (often anachronistically), one scene stands out. In the last
big sequence, Pvt. Mellish, our jolly Jewish enlisted man who taunts
German P.O.W.s with his Star of David, is frantically waiting at his
post in a tower for Cpl. Upham, who's been reduced from translator to
ammo-delivery boy, to bring him enough rounds to keep the Germans at
bay. Upham has become so petrified with fear that he watches a German
soldier enter the tower and merely creeps up the staircase, unable to
rescue his buddy. Spielberg makes us wait with Mellish as, first, the
heavy footsteps on the stairs bring promise of aid, but then, when
Mellish doesn't hear Upham's voice, he knows: it's the enemy. A
German. And for Mellish, there can be no greater enemy: it's not just
national, it's personal.

As the two soldiers begin to struggle, we realize the German's also
bereft of bullets. Their confrontation comes down to a mano a mano
death match that has been the core scene of every great war story
since Homer's Iliad. Mellish and the German roll over on top of each
other, kicking, lunging, strangling, knocking noggins, until they're
down to their knives. They are evenly matched until Mellish's knife
is knocked out of his hand, and the German bears down on him with the
knife poised at his heart. Mellish pushes up on the German's arm.
Their death-grip is like two scorpions in a bottle.

To increase the tension of this scene, the German soldier maintains a
steady stream of talking - or, rather, hissing at Pvt. Mellish. Most
viewers seem to think he is torturing Mellish, threatening him or
cursing him, because the harsh sound of the language indicates
something dreadful, even evil. But nothing could be further from the

What the German is saying to Mellish is quite different: "Let it be,
let it be, let it be." (Pace John Lennon.) "Let it be, and it won't
hurt you so much. It won't be so painful." In short, the German is
trying to show the American the easy route to death. Why? This is
not the sadistic, vicious enemy we know in WWII pictures. No,
Spielberg is trying to humanize the German, and particularly in this
duel to the death, to show the German bringing mercy to the ghastly
business of being a soldier. Yet, because nobody knows what's going
down - we resort to old cliches.

I never thought I'd find myself begging for subtitles, but the entire
point of this scene is lost if we don't know what the German is trying
to tell his victim. I suppose all manner of implications can be
devised and debated, and there's always room for interpretation both
shallow and subtle. But no interpretation is possible without the
language itself providing the foundation for this microcosm of the war
in which Mellish must die and the German must survive - however

Perhaps Spielberg's point is that the ineffectual intellectual, who
failed to get Mellish the bullets to defend himself, is there.
Certainly, the camera continuously cuts back to his cowardice and
shame. And he alone can hear the German and understand what is being
said. Uppham is, however, no threat, and the German can't even take
the time to kill him as he passes him on the way down the stairs after
the horrendous battle in the tower. It remains for Uppham to tell the
story, I suppose; metaphysically speaking, this is in tune with
Spielberg's resuscitation of German morality in "Schindler's List."

On the other hand, Spielberg can never handle a theme with
straightforward consistency. In "Saving Private Ryan," he indulges
his usual artistic schizophrenia in an earlier scene that gives a face
to the enemy, when Hanks' little platoon takes a P.O.W. and makes him
dig graves. When the Americans are ready to let him dig and fall into
his own grave, Captain Hanks refuses to let them follow their
instincts. He sticks to the Geneva Convention, but unable to be
burdened with a P.O.W. in his mission, he simply grants the German his
life and sends him on his way. In the final scene, that soldier has
done what a soldier must do - rejoined his ranks. There he is among
the Germans attacking the bridge Hanks is defending. In the final
moments, they face each other in the village square. "I know that
guy," cries the German in the friendly tones of "Hale, fellow, well
met" - in German (again sans subtitles), but too late. The German
soldiers aim at Captain Hanks and shoot him dead. So much for the
Geneva Convention. They are at war.

In the interstices of this ghastly saga, Spielberg has tried to show
the impulse to communicate - and to say something meaningful, even
humane. Alas, it goes untranslated. The translator himself, as
conceived by the story, is basically a jerk - a man who sits around
translating Edith Piaf songs while they wait for the German tanks to
tear down the bridge. He would not be such a bad guy hanging around
on the left bank twenty years earlier, but not cut out for a foxhole.

Perhaps what Spielberg is trying to say is save us not only from the
Germans, but also the intellectuals.

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