Sophie’s Choice (1982)

Dir. Alan J. Pakula. Starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Peter MacNicol

There’s a lot about Sophie’s Choice that works, but none of that addresses the central problem in the story: everything is too exaggerated to work well. Wouldn’t a jealous lover suffice as well as one with paranoid schizophrenia? Wouldn’t a haunting experience outside the Holocaust have done just as well to force Sophie to make that choice for her children? (Yes, I know it was a novel first. Same questions.) Everything about Sophie’s Choice seems just a little too big to work, which is strange because the lead performances are just right and the things you think about after seeing the film are deeply memorable. Its title moment is still deeply affecting, even if everybody in the English speaking world adopted “Sophie’s choice” into the vernacular three-plus decades ago.

Everything everyone has ever said about Streep’s performance is true, from the accent to the other languages spoken to the expression to the pathos. It’s common knowledge that Streep was not anyone’s first choice for Sophie. What’s less discussed is that one of the actresses who was seriously considered was Liv Ullmann. Sophie’s Choice, with its love of close-ups and its focus on trauma, is like discount Bergman; given Ullmann’s centrality to actual Bergman, one assumes she would have done just fine for herself in a role less challenging than the one she played in Persona, for example. Personally, I would rather see Sophie’s Choice with Ullmann than Streep, but alas – 1982 is far gone. Anyway:

Streep’s performance is so good, in fact, that it obscures a really strong Kevin Kline performance, and it makes MacNicol’s serviceable, if sappy, work look positively weak. It’s hard to play someone who is totally helpless in the best of situations, but it’s particularly difficult to manage when the superior acting of your co-stars is so much better that it makes you look a little silly just as a matter of course. Next to Kline he feels a little more believable, if for no other reason than Kline can be in on a scene that isn’t as serious as a tomb. Every scene that Streep is in is grounded in the melancholy she carries around with her; Streep’s laughter in this movie never seems honest, which is entirely the point. She laughs mostly with air, not with sound, and her face is too happy each time, too performative to ring true. Sophie may dress with the same exuberance that Nathan indulges in, but she does not have his energy. He dances and she drags. Kevin Kline is one of those enormously talented physical types, coordinated and effortlessly acrobatic, and as a younger man those skills are on full display. He dexterously tosses a leek behind his back into a pot; he swings from balcony to balcony without fear. In one early scene, he tumbles in a rolling tube at Coney Island and then stretches out all of his limbs in a St. Andrew’s cross as the tube continues to move. It’s the kind of mock-formal, all-kinetic acting that makes him such a delightful Pirate King, although he’s doing it in service of a very different kind of man here. Nathan has been diagnosed, somewhere along the line, with paranoid schizophrenia, though he appears to have been diagnosed that way by someone who had only heard of the illness and never run across it before. His actions are much more in line with someone suffering from bipolar disorder; he is occasionally manic (let’s go to Coney Island! let’s have a toast on the Brooklyn Bridge!) and sometimes brutally unhappy (in his first scene, he informs a sobbing Streep, with some ill-fitting panache, that she is like a disease he doesn’t need – he then goes on to fire off some abuse at MacNicol, who he’s never seen before). The scene of his that stands out most is one where he’s serene. He’s making dinner for Sophie, who he’s diagnosed with anemia after peeling her off the floor of a library, and he is speaking quietly and gently; in other words, it’s Kline’s actual voice when he isn’t doing a bit. Personally, I don’t know that mental illness needs to figure into the story at all; some people are just temperamental and emotional, and Nathan’s words would have all of their effect without tying schizophrenia to them. Stingo refers to him as “fatally glamorous,” which is a marvelous description of the man. One wonders if the movie believes the glamour only takes shape because of his illness.

The real trouble starts with Streep’s character. If Nathan’s illness is an overreaction, then it’s hard to think of a word that adequately describes Sophie’s experience. Sophie lies and is found out in small pieces throughout the movie. She talks up her father, who died at Sachsenhausen; it turns out that his arrest was motivated by his status as an academic, even though he vocally and publicly called for the extermination of the Jews himself. She was sentenced to Auschwitz with her children for stealing a ham – a choice of protein which calls attention to the fact that she’s a Catholic – and tells Stingo that her daughter was killed on arrival, while her son stayed alive for some unknown amount of time. She does not tell Nathan, so far as we know, that she tried to seduce Rudolf Hoess in an attempt to gain freedom for her son, if not herself; nor can we imagine that she told Nathan that she played up her role in calling for a Final Solution, even ensuring she keeps her shoes so she can keep a little piece of pamphlet safe to show Hoess her written opinion. And it is not until the end of the movie that we find out that she made her unthinkable choice. She tells the Nazis to take her girl. Once again, it’s hard to overestimate what a bludgeoning moment that is to watch. When The Exorcist debuted, theater owners learned pretty quickly to put kitty litter on the floor; I’m surprised there aren’t stories about people doing the same thing for Sophie’s Choice.

Unquestionably, Sophie is a victim of the Nazis. She has suffered too much not to be a victim of some kind; people whose entire families die at the hands of their governments deserve that status. And unquestionably, Sophie is surrounded by people who are victimized by her. As she walks unsteadily through the mud, she passes a block of condemned prisoners who are essentially being deprived to death, reaching their hands through the bars and crying out for water. There is no doubt that she bears some responsibility, even if it is small, for their fates and for the fates of many like them. The film finds in her much more victim than oppressor, which is not unreasonable. For all of her flaws, someone like Stingo can still have sex with her without forcing us to hate him. (The movie’s willingness to mix heavy petting and the death of a specific child, honestly, works fairly well in the context of Sophie leaving Stingo. She provides a new form of intimacy that she has never breached before, he accepts it, and then the two of them engage in another type of intimacy that she chooses to run away from.) Yet it’s also impossible to think of her without considering the disgust we must have for a would-be collaborator like her, even one who has suffered so much and been punished so thoroughly. Nathan, in his worst moments, calls attention to Sophie’s odds-defying survival. How did you make it out of Auschwitz? he asks her, nose-to-nose. We know by now that he has an entire room in the apartment given to his research of the Nazis and the Final Solution. How is it that you survived when so many others did not? Sophie’s Choice forces us to reconsider what survivor’s guilt is. Generally we think that survivors of such a situation blame themselves needlessly; what Sophie’s Choice wonders is whether or not her suicide is a deserving instance of capital punishment. It’s not brave enough or cruel enough to go that far, but it dips its toes into dangerous waters. In a situation which is more personal and less historical – in short, if she had sacrificed a child in a situation which was not loaded with the meaning of the Holocaust – this might be a stunning picture. But the movie chooses its direction and cannot stray away from it; it is as inevitable as the cyanide suicide that Nathan and Sophie share together.

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