Sophie’s Choice (1982)

Director: Alan J. Pakula

Producers: Alan J. Pakula, Keith Barish

Writers: William Styron (novel), Alan J. Pakula (screenplay)

Photography: Nestor Almendros

Music: Marvin Hamlisch

Cast: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Peter MacNicol, Rita Karin, Stephen D. Newman, Greta Turken, Josh Mostel, Marcell Rosenblatt, Moishe Rosenfled, Robin Bartlett, Eugene Lipinski, John Rothman, John Rothman, Joseph Leon

There’s a reason Diane Keaton called Meryl Streep “my generation’s genius.” Streep demonstrates an obsessive dedication in preparing for her roles. Her record number of Oscar nominations can make the argument of greatest actress of all time. And for the seminal glimpse into this level of preparation and subsequent adulation, look no further than Sophie’s Choice, the film that won Streep her second Oscar and provided one of her most challenging, emotionally draining roles to date, that of a Holocaust survivor living a volatile immigrant life while hiding the darkest of secrets.

Streep famously spent three months learning the Polish language and additional time rehearsing a Polish accent in broken English. She also picked up some German, and dropped off pounds by cutting her fluid intake and eating only blended foods in order to achieve the frail look needed for her scenes in the concentration camp. No matter how you slice it — emotional range, challenge factor — it stands as one of the single greatest performances of all time.

Ironically, viewers approach the film from the perspective of an entirely different character, a sort of Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby, only this time a young southern man named Stingo (Peter MacNicol), who moves to New York in dreams of writing the next great American novel. Holding up in a Brooklyn boarding house, Stingo soon becomes very attached to his neighbors, Nathan (Kevin Kline in his film debut) and Sophie (Meryl Streep), whose relationship is strained by Nathan’s bipolar nature and Sophie’s horrific memories of her experience in Auschwitz. The film alternates between real time happenings in New York and flashbacks of the past, the former narrated by Stingo, the latter narrated by Sophie in revelations to Stingo.

Stingo is a manifestation of real-life author William Styron, who based the 1979 novel Sophie’s Choice off his own experiences. Like Stingo, Styron was an author moving to Brooklyn in 1947, actually living in the same boarding house used in the movie, and befriending a real Holocaust survivor named Sophie, who revealed to him the most horrific of stories. Throughout the film, the Styron/Stingo character provides a proxy for we the viewers, as we become naive observers trying to understand this tragic couple’s torment with indeterminable amounts of darkness.

Nathan is at once lovable for his poetic glamor (particularly in his coronation of Stingo on Brooklyn Bridge) and detestable for his paranoid, violent behavior (i.e. firing a gunshot into the phone receiver). Even so, Sophie loves him to death, partly for sadomasochistic reasons, undergoing what Streep called the “perverse search for the same horror that you’re escaping from in order to punish yourself for the guilt you feel.” (A) Stingo quickly becomes smitten by her, exploring her nightmarish stories in hopes of somehow saving her. “Live for me,” he says, not realizing that Sophie is already dead inside, irreversibly so, for reasons best articulated by actual Holocaust survivor Silvia Grohs-Martin:

“You left one person, you came back another one. And no matter how they tried, even looking to find the same one that had left, she was no longer there. She was dead. And what kept on living knew too much, had seen too much, had felt too much.” (A)

The film arrived decades after The Diary of Ann Frank (1959) and decades before Schindler’s List (1993), The Pianist (2002) and The Reader (2008), which won Kate Winslet an Oscar for a similar role. Like all of those films, Sophie’s Choice hit hard with a gut-wrenching portrayal of humanity’s darkest hour. Director Alan J. Pakula, himself a Jew, treats the material with great care, focusing less on the physical horror and more on symbolic portrayals of it.

His most memorable image may be that of a child’s face fading into a shot of billowing smoke from an Auschwitz crematory. His most telling image may be that of Sophie walking through the mud of Auschwitz to begin work as a servant in a Nazi officer’s home, as the camera cranes up over the perimeter wall to juxtapose the colorless, lifeless camp against the vibrant, cheerful front yard of the officer’s estate.

Legendary Spanish cinematographer Nestor Almendros (Days of Heaven) had worked with Streep before during her Oscar win for Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). Here, he leads her to another statue, with powerful closeups of Streep’s pale-white face, often shot in long-takes of Streep looking directly at the camera, as she reveals her disturbing past in hushed tones. At one point, she sits next to a mirror in guilt-ridden self-division. This is exactly what her life has become. She has created her own fantasy version of her past in order to cope with the harsh reality of it. As the film progresses in mystery fashion, Stingo begins to unlock pieces of her real past, wading through her blend of truth and lies, and pushing her to reveal her most nightmarish secret in the film’s unforgettable final 20 minutes: “I’m going to tell you something now I have never told anybody.”

This moment is, of course, the revelation of Sophie’s choice, the key to figuring out her entire character. It’s also a turning point in the film, before which viewers are absorbed in trying to figure out the cause of her torment, after which they will want to return to previous parts of the film. The scene is an unforgettable flashback of Sophie’s arrival at Auschwitz, a haunting moment where a Nazi officer turns to look at the camera with a cold face, deciding he’s going to play God by presenting Sophie with an impossible choice. I won’t reveal that choice here in this review, but it’s an unthinkable pair of options. Though Streep had prior experience with similar material, winning an Emmy for the TV series Holocaust, she could only stand to perform this scene once, finding it too emotionally draining to do a second take.

Fans of the film can no doubt relate to her “emotionally draining” claim, overwhelmed by the simultaneous culmination of humanity’s evil and the impossibility of Sophie’s predicament. Between this scene and the end credits, the closure of Sophie’s Choice is one of the most tragic ever filmed, creating one of the more famous tearjerkers in movie history. Its reputation of beauty lies in the fitting nature of the tragedy, from the clothes Nathan and Sophie are wearing, to the meaningful book which Stingo reads, each bit lined with the oboes of Marvin Hamlisch’s weeping score. Those with a soft spot for melodrama will love it — and have to buy a new box of Kleenex. Others may find the film overwrought, but such claims are squashed by the idea that this is Stingo’s written account.

The film placed atop many lists of the Best Films of 1982 lists, but it took a while to make many all-time best lists. While it was left off the AFI’s original Top 100 list in 1997, it did crack the list in its revised 2007 list. Sophie’s Choice may not be a flawless film, but it is an unforgettable one. Streep’s voice, that Polish accent, those butchered words, that wavy blonde hair, that pale face, those rosy red lips, those haunting stories, those sad eyes, that impossible choice, will haunt viewers forever.


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