Disturbing Movie Scenes #5: Sophie’s Choice

5. Sophie’s Choice: The Choice

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Oh what are those cheeky Nazi’s up to now? Remember the singing in pick #16? Weeel it is about to get a bit more intense. Oh and spoilers:

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Sophie’s Choice is kind of a notorious weepy, a film adapted pretty faithfully from a novel, that follows a trio of friends/lovers in 1940’s New York. Stingo, played by Peter MacNicol, is a young writer fresh off the bus who falls in with a sexy young couple named Nathan and Sophie. Nathan is temperamental but charismatic so is obviously played by Kevin Kline. And then we have the Polish Catholic beauty Sophie, played unforgettably by the one and only Meryl Streep, who Stingo is attracted to but who is tied to her jealous lover. You’d be forgiven for believing the choice will be which man she will go for based on that description.

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It’s not.

She is intelligent and kind and all that jazz but let’s not beat around the bush: Girlfriend has seen shit. She chats to Stingo about her past and we learn along with him the meaning of the title.

There is a great theme in the movie about how we experience suffering. Both Stingo and Nathan are in their own way bullshitters who struggle with reality. Stingo wants to be a great novelist and believes he has some insight into life by virtue of this wish alone while Nathan, who is mentally ill, is threatened by everyone and always ready to lash out, especially at Sophie. Why is he threatened by her? Perhaps because her pain eclipses his own. He has turned his back on God, life and love while she struggles on and it would seem he feels weak in comparison…He initially seems to be a foothold for Sophie to grab on to but it turns out he was quicksand the whole time.

If any of you were lucky enough to have talked to someone who lived during World War II, you may have noticed that their attitude towards the era is one of ‘well we just had to get on with it’ as though the death of millions was a delayed train. Neither Stingo and Nathan are ‘let’s just get on with it’ people but Sophie is trying…It doesn’t go so well though and after sharing a night of passion with Stingo she returns to Nathan and they commit suicide together. Despite the lull of drugs, drink, sex and an unexpected second chance of life in 1940’s Brooklyn, the past can’t be forgotten, the pain can’t be ignored and nothing was ever the same again.

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We learn that Sophie was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp with her two young children following the death of her Husband and Father. But why, I hear you cry, she is a blonde haired, blue eyed Catholic? Sure, sure but she tried to smuggle food to her sick Mother…So you understand. Their hands were tied.

I am stalling. Can you tell? Well fuck you, I’m not done yet…

Sophie’s Choice wasn’t really a film I enjoyed and I feel it falls under the category of a movie that would not be remembered if it were not for the lead performances (it is essentially a three hander, two of whom were making their film début from the theatre) especially The Streep.

Ah Streep. When I call her one of a kind, I am not kidding. She is a charming, personable, unpretentious individual who holds the distinction of being one of the most decorated actors of all time in terms of shiny prizes. She often makes cheeky references to this in her acceptance speeches, demonstrating she is fully aware of her reputation as someone who gets honoured by various academies every time she dons a wig and a silly accent. She understands your frustration, she gets she is not ALL that. But she is something.

Is the hype supported? Kind of…Yes. Like a lot of actors of her generation who are well known for their tour de force performances in some of the best regarded films of all time, she has become a bit shouty in later years. It is sort of like watching a ballet dancer who can no longer grand jete like she could in her youth so instead clomps heavily around the stage but still somehow sticks the landing, like the moves were beautiful the whole time and we were just looking at them wrong.

I feel like I am patronising the great Streep with faint praise but I think it is just a fact. She eats scenery like a fasting Pacino on opening night but she will still bring the house down. However, the earlier work…There are times when I struggle to watch her as she slides from role to role, waxy and smooth, natural and alien, blank and full of pain, angry and resigned, never quite right but always true. Nobody can touch her and nobody could try.

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Plus she looked like this in Manhattan. This was the first film of hers I saw. I quite wanted to have the sex with her please thank you.

Sophie’s Choice seems like top award bait, what with her speaking Polish and German and there are Nazi’s and crying and sex scenes…Classic oscarbation. But Streep’s work is almost too good for such silliness here. It seems like an insult to offer her nothing more than a shiny trophy for her troubles.

What I am trying to say is…Sophie’s Choice might be a cliché answer for the question ‘what is one of the most disturbing moments you have ever seen in a film?’ but sometimes the clichés are true. Streep is brilliant at the acting. That can’t be disputed after watching the film.

But she is still not the MVP of my nightmares. That honour goes to an actress named Jennifer Lawn. But before I talk about her let’s talk about concentration camps.

I was going to provide you with a picture of a puppy or something to try and help you get through this with me but you know what? Fuck that. Let’s get real. I may not know history very well (do I have to tell you that Battle of Hastings story again?) but I don’t need to sugar coat it. It can’t really be done. It wasn’t that long ago and it really happened. This kind of thing still goes on.

Ok…So have you ever heard of Die Endlösung der Judenfrage? Well it translates into one of the most horrible things I could ever have imagined: The final solution of the Jewish question. I just had to write that with my fingers because it was an actual plan that lead to the deaths of more people than my brain can currently picture. People did that to other people. Did what? Well put European Jewish people in slave labour camps with horrific conditions and carried out mass extermination using gas chambers.

When people arrived from the train to Auschwitz they were divided into two groups. If you were sent to the right you were a labourer. To the left and it was immediate death.

ADN-ZB Das faschistische Konzentrationslager Auschwitz Eine Gruppe Juden aus Ungarn nach der Ankunft in Auschwitz im Sommer 1944.

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Das faschistische Konzentrationslager Auschwitz
Eine Gruppe Juden aus Ungarn nach der Ankunft in Auschwitz im Sommer 1944.

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So in this fictional account of a real event, Sophie is waiting nervously with her kids when she gets the attention of a Nazi. Now I am sure Nazi’s were people too, with their own families and idiosyncrasies that made them human but one look at this guy and you know where this is going:

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It doesn’t mean it can be stopped. Sophie is told only one of her children may live. Just like that. Despite her Catholicism, despite her obvious efforts to please and for seemingly no other reasons besides being a bit evil, the guy tells her that either she picks one or they both die.

So, seemingly in a moment of panic, she asks them to take her Daughter away and keeps hold of her Son.

Jennifer Lawn plays the unfortunate Eva here and it is her screams that wreck me every time I watch this scene. Which isn’t often. But I played it just now to check the link and I cried. Not proper big tears but the kind of crying that starts because of the distress of someone else. Watching her being carried off, screaming for her Mum, still clutching her teddy is one of the most horrifying things I have ever looked at on purpose. I may not be a parent but the sound of those cries had me in the foetal position on my bed for several minutes after the film ended.

But it hasn’t been dreamed up. As with Burnt by the Sun the impact is all the sharper because it comes from a very real place. Little girls with teddy bears were murdered as part of a collective in small rooms fit for this purpose. And what does it mean for the boy and woman left behind? To forgo living and to merely be? Can any art really capture that experience?

How does a person live with that kind of pain afterwards? All over the world there was grief and destruction on so many intricate levels, so much loss with no chance of recovery…

And they all just had to get on with it.

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Tomorrow…an Icelandic singer meets her maker. #4

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