Adapted from a novel of the same name by William Styron in 1979, “Sophie’s Choice” written and directed for the screen by Alan J. Pakula is one of the rare films in the history of cinema that stays on mind after watching it even once. Styron who in 1985, three years after the release of the film, suffered from a serious episode of depression, leading him to write the memoir of his illness, “Darkness Visible” that became another of his masterpiece, perhaps had some masked such feelings when he wrote “Sophie’s Choice”, that is obviously a tale of suffering.
Pakula known for social and political type films such as “To kill a mocking bird” and “All the President men”, did not direct before or after this film any melodrama/tragic story. While thinking of the Swedish actress, Liv Ullman for the role of Sophie, it was Meryl Streep who threw herself at her feet to get the role. And she did well and performed the best role of her career life, where she had to lose weight to match Sophie specially at the concentration camp scenes. Another reflection of the casualties of war and political supremacy, and expansion at the cost of million lives, “Sophie’s Choice” is not just a tragic tale of humans, but a shameful one. The story is not only about the retelling of what Nazis did to the Jews in their exterminations, but how far the power hunger and hatred of humans could go to force a mother to make a choice of saving a child, but giving another away for extermination.
Sophie’s Choice: A Choice cannot live with
The story and the film opens in 1947, two years after the final end of the tragic and shameful second world war in Brooklyn, and is told by Stingo (Peter MacNicol), a young writer who rents an apartment in a house, where he will become the third party in the lives of Sophie (Meryl Streep) and Nathan (Kevin Kline) who live there as well. Sophie is a weak and fragile woman who mysteriously is attached to Nathan whose mental and emotional instability and insanity is evident even to the young and naïve looking Stingo. One moment in an intense love and affection to Sophie and the next moment suspicious of her infidelity, Nathan swings from a normal and high mood to total anger, and jealousy to the point of abusing his lover mentally, verbally and physically. Surprised by the pathological dependency of Sophie to Nathan, Stingo and the viewers are puzzled why Sophie still has remained in such abusive and roller coaster relationship. In fact the first part of the film is a depiction of such unhealthy pathological attachments or sick symbiotic relationship that exists in the real life around us and some viewers may relate to.
It is only from the second part of the story of the film that we learn through Sophie’s revealing the secret of her past life to Stingo, the reason for her staying in such pathological relationship. Sophie a malnourished anemic Polish immigrant is found and helped on the floor of a library after being harassed by a librarian that there is no such American poet as Emily Dickinson that she was asking for her poetry book. Mesmerized by her pale angle-like beauty, Nathan takes Sophie to his place, have her rest, cooks, feeds her and gives her the book of Emily Dickinson. He reads the a famous poem of the book that repeats again in the final scene, revealing the secret behind such symbiotic depressive relationship, that the two lost souls only could fill in.
Despite Stingo already having romantic craving for Sophie, in the interim, meets a girl, Astrid (Marcell Rosenblatt) on the beach who keeps saying fuck provoked him and takes him to her house. When Stingo tries to have sex with the girl, and she pushes him away, he discovers in his total surprise that she can say fuck, but can not do it. One evening when both Sophie and Stingo are alone, she invites him to her apartment where she slowly discloses to him that she was married, but after the war her father and husband were both taken by the Nazis to concentration camp and killed. She tells that she was also taken to the Auschwitz …but pauses the rest of her story and tells him that there are so many things that he won’t understand and she cannot tell him. He asks her to trust him, but they are interrupted by the arrival of Nathan.
Nathan again in one of his paranoid rampage, attacking Sophie for being unfaithful and Stingo to be involved in an affair with her. The next day as an apology to his temper tantrum of the night before, while the three in pick nick, he gives Sophie a beautiful red dress and shoes and a dress jacket to Stingo. But again in the evening of the same day when both dressed in his gift clothes, and trying to surprise him in his apartment by turning the lights off and popping champagne, he walks in flared up in his pathological jealousy with anger and storms out at both. He attacks Sophie verbally that how she only survived the concentration camp while so many died. Stingo in surprise and anger tries to pull away Sophie out of the harsh abuse, but she pushes him away and follows Nathan who is running out of the apartment.
The next day Stingo when cannot find them, he looks around and ask others, when he finds out that Sophie’s father was not killed by the Nazis as he was a proponent of the Jews’ extermination. When Sophie comes back home, Stingo questions her why she had lied to him about her father. She slowly while the film flashes back to 1938, breaks to Stingo about her father and his Arian ideology , the extermination of Polish Jews when she found out accidentally one day while typing his speech that shocked her. Hardly but slowly Sophie tells her unbearable and secret life story that her daughter was sent to extermination camp and her little boy to a concentration camp away from her.
Still Sophie had not revealed the whole truth and the choice she had been forced to make, that is the core content of the story and the title of the film, “Sophie’s choice”. The beautiful pale and lifeless face of Sophie is gripping and heartfelt on the screen when she continues with her story. Telling Stingo that she did not want to live anymore until finding her son that her story is interrupted again with the arrival of Nathan. In the morning, Nathan’s brother calls and comes to the scene and reveals to Stingo the insanity of Nathan and that he has no degree, lest being a microbiologist, and suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. The next day Nathan proposes to Sophie to marry him and the three after a private wedding ceremony go to a park at night when the bride and groom dance to a waltz music.
The next day the wedded couple disappear and Stingo looking for them when suddenly Sophie appears and breaks the news that Nathan has a gun. Nathan calls the apartment and starts attacking and accusing the two again with infidelity. Sophie reveals her fear that Nathan might kill himself and die without her. Sophie and Stingo goe to the city looking for Nathan, renting a room where Sophie finishes her true life story this time. Stingo breaks to her that how much he loves her and wants to marry her. Sophie declines his request not just for the age difference between them, her being older, but that he would not want her to marry him and be the mother of his children. Then Sophie asks for a drink to be able to tell him the whole truth of her past that she does not deserve to be a mother once again.
She tells that when on the train with her son and daughter on the way to Auschwitz, the train stops by the Germans and an officer questions her if she is a Jew and a communist. Sophie responds that she is neither a Jew nor a communist, but a Christian. Then the officer tells her that if she is a true Christian, according to the Christ’s prophecy that children should suffer for God, she has to make a choice to give away one for extermination and keep the other. In one of the most surprising horrific, inhumane and heartbreaking moments on the screen, Sophie’s forced choice in a deep painful sorrow, is to let her little daughter out of her arms to the officer for the death camp.
After finishing her horrific life story, Sophie could only for a moment get relief by sleeping with Stingo who still loves and cherishes her. The next morning, when Stingo wakes up, Sophie has gone and left a letter, saying that she had to go back to Nathan as he needed her and that Stingo will find a suitable wife to marry soon. Going back to their pink house, Stingo notices a large crowd, police cars and ambulance gathering outside. When Stingo gets in, he finds Sophie and Nathan dead in their love bed in each other’s arms and the film in the sorrow of the narrator of the film, Stingo reading the poem of Emily Dickinson once again ends:
“Ample make this bed
Make this bed with awe;
In it, wait till judgment break
Excellent and fair
Be its mattress straight,
Be its pillow round;
Let no sunrise’ yellow noise
Interrupts this ground.”
The final scene of the film is a shot of the pale sad face of Sophie, like a ghost that never has been and never will be in Peace since her terrifying choice ending in the loss of her two children and her survival to suffer!
Unanimously hailed for the performance of Meryl Streep as Sophie, the film received mixed reviews by the major American critics, more on the positive side. Meryl Streep also won almost every awards of best acting including the academy award. The film that was not included in the AFI’s 100 best American films in its first edition of 1998, ranked 91 on its second edition of 2007. Nominated for the best cinematography, costume design, music score, adapted screenplay by the Academy Awards, the film was not granted any. This great film is another example of reception of American media and award agencies that are split even among themselves and proven wrong in the course of time. For example the best American film ever, “Citizen Kane” recognized by many including AFI (American Film Institute) received no academy award for the best picture at its time. In the same token, “Gandhi” won the academy awards in 1983 for the best picture and Richard Attenborough the best directing award and Ben Kingsley the best acting award, all for a mediocre film that only due to its political content and as a redemption to what British did to India, was awarded all over.
As a holocaust film, the American critics’ opinions are split as well. IMDB (The Internet Movie Data Base) puts “The Pianist” in the top of its best holocaust films list, while ranks “Sophie’s Choice” as the number four followed by “Schindler’s list” as the number five. Academy awards recognizes “Schindler’s list” the most with seven awards for the best picture, direction, adapted screenplay, score, editing, cinematography and art direction. AFI also recognizes “Schindler’s list” the most by ranking it as 9th in its first edition of 1998 and 8th in its second edition of 2007. While the list of holocaust films are abundant and made by many countries, from the first of such during the war in 1940 “Night Train to Munich” by Carol Reed to the “The Unvanquished” in 1945 by the Soviet Union to the recent years, “The Reader” in 2008, and “Ida” in 2013, depicting the crimes of Nazis, “Sophie’s Choice” stands out as an unforgettable film just for the forced inhumane choice that she had to make.
In closing remarks “Sophie’s Choice” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:
- Originality: “Sophie’s Choice” is original in depiction of Nazis’ atrocities not only to the Jews, men and women, but to the innocent children. It is one of the rare films that all could be briefed in one word, the “choice” that Sophie was forced to make and could not live in peace until ending her life along with Nathan. The film adapted from the novel of Styron and included the poetry of Dickinson who both experienced depression was able to reflect the downfall of a human mood and spirit, though Sophie’s was a true reaction of a mother to the loss of her children and worse for her choice to be an accomplice in a way. Moreover the film was a portray of a symbiotic pathological relationship that we may observe all around us at any time. The mental instability of Nathan, fitting more to manic depression than schizophrenia, and Sophie falling for him and tolerating his abuses, only for the love of his mania when he is extremely an ideal lover, is a reminder of some similar such pathological relationships all around us. The threesome relationship also helped the development and perception of the plot and storyline from a third person narration and involvement.
- Technicality: The technicality of “Sophie’s Choice” is in its script, the direction and the great performances of all the three main characters, particularly Meryl Streep for her best ever performance on the screen, one that nobody has denied. Moreover the cinematography and the music score did quite a fair job.
- Impact Factor: The influence of “Sophie’s Choice” perhaps has been on other holocaust feature films to portray the Nazis crimes on the screen to the lay viewers at a universal level.
- Survival: “Sophie’s Choice” has survived well not only for its freshness and the impact that still could have on the viewers to this very day, but for its imprint on the mind that could never be forgotten for the choice that she was forced to make.