Let’s Talk About… ‘Sophie’s Choice’ (1982)

Film #64 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.

Directed by Alan J. Pakula

Starring: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Peter MacNicol

Origins

Author William Styron during his younger years

William Styron was fresh out of Duke University when he moved to New York City to start a job with publishing firm McGraw-Hill. Unhappy in his work, he lost his job and moved into a boarding house in Brooklyn, during the summer of 1947. His hope was to write as much of his novel as he could before his money ran out and he would have to move back home to Virginia. While at the boarding house, he came to know and fall in love with a beautiful Polish woman named Sophie. Although they became friendly with one another, Sophie did not reveal many personal details and did not talk much about her past. Styron was sure of one thing however — Sophie had been imprisoned in a concentration camp during the Second World War. She bore a branded serial number on her arms in addition to several scars on her wrists. “What kind of hell did this woman go through?” Styron asked himself. He never asked Sophie this question and eventually his time in Brooklyn came to an end though it did not mark the close of their relationship. It would take many years for the two to reunite, this time allowing Sophie to finally tell her story.

Sophie Zawistowski (Streep) was born in Krakow, Poland, to a good Catholic family. Her father was a linguist who taught at the university-level and her mother was an accomplished pianist. One of Sophie’s favourite memories from her childhood was finding comfort in hearing her mother’s melodies and her father’s typing. Those sounds made her feel secure and assured her that she had the best parents in the world. She was taught and was able to speak several different languages fluently, a skill that would serve her (for better or for worse) later in life. After marrying as a teenager and giving birth to two children, she worked part-time as her father’s secretarial assistant. Difficulties arose around 1939 when the German Nazi Party came into power. Their inhumane practises and plans for mass liquidation of Jews shocked and disgusted Sophie. Even though she had heard speeches preaching on the subject of Anti-Semitism and the need to purge the human race, nothing prepared her to see her father and husband captured by the Nazis and to later learn that they had been executed by shotgun. Sophie’s experience during the War was just getting started.

It was only a matter of time before Sophie herself was arrested and sent with her children to a concentration camp. While there, she was chosen for labour duty and was eventually given a job working with a high-ranking German officer. Her children endured their own separate fates. Miraculously, Sophie survived imprisonment and was liberated by the Russians to a refugee camp in Sweden. A short time later, she made her way to the United States where she arrived in poor health as a result of the malnourishment she suffered as a prisoner in Auschwitz. She tried to stay strong but eventually became weak and close to death until she is saved by a man named Nathan Landau (Kline), a biologist who nurses her back to health. The two become inseparable and support each other during the hardest of times. One and a half years later, they are introduced to a young man by the name of Stingo (MacNicol) who will become their best friend.

What you must understand at this point is that Styron’s description of Sophie is a melange of truth and fabrication. His initial friendship with Sophie revealed little information about herself, her past, and her secrets. It took many years for her to be able to open up to him about what she had suffered. By that time, Styron had moved on with his life though the memory of Sophie had never left him. It was not until he had a vision of her that he would start to learn the truth, prompting the start of ghostly visits from which Sophie would reveal more about herself and her life. This allowed him to eventually write Sophie’s Choice, a novel that is a combination of fact and fiction that is translated as such on the big screen.

 

A Mad, Mad World

Sophie’s fragility is nearly as apparent as her allure. She almost exudes a cherubic glow with her blonde curly tresses, rosy cheeks, and curvaceous body, yet she is unusually low-key and almost always apologetic. This woman is a survivor who garners respect for her resilience and courage from most everyone except for herself. Having lost most of her loved ones during the Holocaust, she finds it difficult to go on without them but moreover, she feels shame for having persevered over death. There is no more religious faith for her to rely on because she is angry at God for having allowed all these innocent people to die, particularly those who she loved. She attempted suicide after her liberation but failed and now waits almost impatiently for death to come for she believes that she does not deserve to live.

(There was) something about her that I felt was doomed.” – Author William Styron

Nathan and Sophie

Ironically, Nathan takes her away from the prospect death as equally as he hangs it over her head. He restored her wellness all the while ignoring his own, sporadically spiralling out-of-control in fits of manic depression throughout their union. Nathan struggled to stay alive even before he met Sophie, silently suffering from a debilitating psychological diagnosis from which there is no cure. Undoubtedly their shared pain and struggles are why he and Sophie bond so well and feel connected to one another. A distinct difference between Sophie and Nathan, however, is that Sophie remains rather emotionally stable whereas Nathan is very much of a wild card. As Stingo says, “Nathan is utterly, fatally glamorous.” You never know what mood he is going to be in and you fear finding out which it will be. When he is good, he is gleeful and generous and optimistic. You feel that anything is possible and that his promises will be fulfilled. When he is bad, he is abusive and profanity-laden and vulgar. He spews the most horrid insults in addition to making preposterous claims. The dynamics of their relationship function like a possessed roller-coaster.

The seemingly easiest thing to do is to break-up the relationship, something that Nathan himself has tried to do on many occasions but cannot succeed in doing so. He and Sophie are bound by survivor’s guilt. As a 29-year-old Jewish man who was deemed unfit for military service during World War II, Nathan cannot forgive himself for not having been able to fight the Nazis. Tracking the remaining Nazis who have escaped justice becomes an unquenchable obsession for him. When his mania takes over, he starts acting like one of the Nazis himself, verbally assaulting Sophie about her origin, her behaviour and moreover, chastising her because she lived while millions of Jews died. The only way that Sophie can stop her shame is by welcoming death and joining the others than went before her. It is also the only way that Nathan can stop his demons from turning him into a monster as well as to relieve his feelings of inferiority.

Stingo

It is through the eyes of Stingo that we are first introduced to the couple and perhaps it is befitting that he should also be the one to bid them farewell. At only 22 years of age, Stingo seems like only a boy when compared to the odd adult world he is entering. He is well-dressed, extremely considerate and respectful even when hit with Nathan’s cruellest taunting. Since he is from the South and has a pronounced drawl in his speech, his cultural origin is an easy target for an enraged Nathan who brings up atrocities like lynchings and segregation. Stingo is not an inept product of his environment, however, and has no tolerance for such practises. In fact, he is one of the only people that show unrequited understanding for Sophie’s plight. He is extremely sensitive to her having lived through the Holocaust as well as to any feelings of inferiority she may have. His interest in her life is a basis for which he can provide her more ample support at the same time as he genuinely wants to know more about the woman who has captured his heart. The one thing that he cannot do is relate to Sophie in the way that she feels which ultimately isolates him from being able to save her.

Having lost his mother at the age of 12 and thereafter having grown-up in a dysfunctional family setting, Stingo also has patience when it comes to Nathan’s gruff shifts in mood. He momentarily thinks about leaving and even internally asks himself why he did not do so considering the circumstances. Along with Sophie and Nathan, the three friends form an unyielding bond and almost seem to be in love with each other (in a general non-sexual way). His feelings for Sophie are sometimes overwhelming but he always keeps his physical distance from her. Though there is a part of him that would like Nathan out of the picture, he never verbally objects to Sophie going back to him though inside he is quite disappointed. There are times when it feels as if Stingo is the third wheel to their coupling as evidenced by the uncomfortable body language that he shows during certain scenes. Yet, there are moments when he comes closer to them.

Styron has said that the characters of Nathan and Stingo were both a reflection of his own self, representing how he felt whilst dealing with severe depression. In this case, the pureness of Stingo is not enough to convince her to move away from the darkness of Nathan. This goes to reflect the ultimate feeling of doom that Styron had about the real-life Sophie.

The Players

The performances given by the three main actors are truly beyond compare.

Prisoner Number 11379

Meryl Streep makes the character of Sophie come alive and was personally dedicated to her portrayal. She studied Polish for several hours a day for months on end as she also did with German. Portions of the film were solely in Polish and German with English subtitles. Her scenes in Auschwitz are extremely uncomfortable to watch and as a mother, it is unbearable to think of how difficult and painful it was for her to film certain scenes. For her amazing effort, she was awarded an Academy Award for Best Actress.

Kevin Kline boasts Sophie’s Choice as his debut screen appearance but in fact it is his second as The Pirates of Penzance was shot before and released after this. It must have been an incredible challenge for him to portray such a multi-layered part that required him to seemingly have several different personalities. His introduction to the audience as shocking as it is inhospitable which makes it hard to connect with him, even as you get a better grasp of his ailment as the movie goes on. The goal is not to alienate the character of Nathan from audiences but rather to show how trying it is to live with someone who is schizophrenic. His suffering is as a great as Sophie’s though it manifests itself in a much different way.

Peter MacNicol appears in his second feature film and had amassed a number of stage credits before transitioning to the big screen. It would appear that he used his natural Southern accent while playing Stingo as he was born and raised in Texas though he may have slightly altered it to resemble more of a Virginia/North Carolina twang. His character’s presence is refreshing because he has a rather positive outlook on life and he is naturally curious about the people around him. MacNicol has a sparkle in his eye and a wonderfully broad smile that is most inviting; characteristics that are important because we largely see the film through his eyes. In essence, we are standing next to him throughout the duration of the film and discovering Sophie’s story along with him.

 

Appreciation

It goes without saying that this is a film like no other. There are important themes surround the Holocaust, assimilation, dysfunctional relationships, and severe mental illness that are difficult to witness but which ultimately serve as a great platform of learning. While Sophie’s Choice is mainly a dramatic film, there are moments of pure humour. I laughed out loud when Sophie confused Stingo’s seersucker blazer for a “cocksucker”. (Being a native English speaker, I have had my share of similar trip-ups in the French language.) Also, Stingo’s ill-fated attempts at lovemaking with a certain Leslie Lapidus were very funny. Just as life goes, you experience a mix of emotions running through you as each day passes by.

The up-and-down nature of the film was initially off-putting to me as I felt the overall finished product to be too fragmented. I thought, “Why not focus on the Holocaust scenes at one single point in the film rather than jumping back and forth in the story?” I soon came to realise, however, that this set-up was intentional. As the film progresses, we are given snippets of information about Sophie’s life. Even if the scene is heavily emotionally charged, the next scene could be the complete opposite of that. The result is that you as a viewer feel very solemn after soaking up Sophie’s rather grim flashback and are forced to face a jovial, celebratory event while continuing to carry that upsetting emotion. And this is exactly what Sophie has to live with every moment of her life. She experiences joy but is constantly reminded of the past that she can never escape. A part of her will always be stuck there as a result of the choices she had to make during that time.

Sophie’s choice was not just about making one ultimate decision. It refers to a collection of choices that brought her to present day, to seemingly be amongst the living and be given another chance at life. Though her body makes that voyage, her spirit is unable to complete the journey.

Deserving of a place on the AFI 100 Greatest Films List and more than worthy to be considered by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry, Sophie’s Choice is a rare cinematic gem that should never be forgotten.

 

Behind-the-Scenes Photos on Page 2