Sophie's Choice
Undeserved guilt

by Phyllis Deutsch

from Jump Cut, no. 29, February 1984, pp. 9-10
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1984, 2005

In many ways, SOPHIE'S CHOICE is a good movie. The acting is terrific, the cinematography gorgeous, the soundtrack moving, the dialogue and theme sophisticated and interesting. Flashbacks to Krakow and Auschwitz are realistic and relevant, and the film moves assuredly forward to its dramatic climax. Director Alan Pakula's film version of William Styron's best-selling novel becomes a class act … such a class act, in fact, that the moral perversity it picks up from the book largely gets lost on spellbound audiences. In their attempts to convey the Holocaust’s horror and the torment of one of its survivors, first author and now director have presented us with “works of art" that repeat many of the basic tenets of Fascism.

Both the book and the film are insidiously racist. Most of the novel's anti-black "humor" seems to derive from the character Stingo's roots as a Southern white boy. (In the book we learn, for example, that Stingo funded a life as a starving writer with money recovered from the sale of one of his great-grandfather's slaves. This is a tale told with amused detachment by Styron). Since Pakula seems more interested in the trials of Polish Catholic Sophie and U.S. Jewish Nathan than in Stingo's Coming-of-Age, the director has eliminated jokes about blacks in the film. However, the novel's basic anti-Semitism is faithfully recreated on the screen. Sophie, the heroine of the story, is not a Jew, but a Catholic. Styron probably wanted to remind us that the Holocaust claimed the lives of Gentiles as well as Jews. Granted, but remember that the Nazi's genocidal campaign was created for and systematically aimed at the extermination of the Jewish people. Casting a non-Jewish Sophie, and recreating the Holocaust through her eyes, seriously circumscribes Jewish presence in this filmed calamity.

In fact, the suffering of the Jews always remains peripheral to Sophie's story. Their marginality is emphasized throughout the film by the camerawork. When Sophie visits the Jewish ghetto in Krakow, and later, when she stands in line at Auschwitz, the camera focuses on Meryl Streep's beautiful blondness. In both scenes, the Jews huddle together in the background, dark and indistinguishable, smaller than Streep, smaller than life. Sophie stands somewhat apart, surveying the crowds; she is not one of them. And she remains quite conscious of her difference. At Auschwitz, trying to save herself and her children, she cries out to a guard,

"I am a Christian. I'm not a Jew, neither are my children. They are racially pure."

The whole scene is so horrifying that we have an instantly sympathetic response to Sophie. Her anti-Semitism seems excusable in this extreme situation. In fact, we begin to feel that Sophie has indeed been given a raw deal; after all, she's not a Jew.

The anti-Semitic undercurrent surfaces in the stereotypical Jewish characters that surround Sophie in the United States. Etta Zimmerman, Sophie's landlady, is a friendly yenta whose kibitzing is omnipresent in her pink apartment house. Etta's chatter and laughter do not so much function in the film as signs of life as pointed counters to the deep and meaningful torment of Sophie, the non-Jew. Etta is represented as trivial; Sophie, not. Blatantly insensitive is Lisa Lapidus, a voluptuous Jewish Princess, carted out to ease Stingo's horniness. Lisa is tan and dark, wears lots of lipstick, and exposes her bosom. She is self-serving, dishonest, neurotic, and wealthy. She arouses Stingo's passion and then lets him down. Returning home after an unconsummated evening with Lisa, Stingo finds Sophie alone in her apartment. She paces the room, anxiously awaiting the return of her unpredictable lover, Nathan. She wears a tasteful, feminine white dressing gown. One look at this suffering Madonna, and poor Lisa Lapidus becomes a bad Jewish joke.

Nathan represents the worst Jew of all. Nathan is "completely mad" and has spent most of life in “expensive funny farms." He's addicted to benzedrine and cocaine. On a good high, Nathan displays an irresistible joie de vivre. On a bad high, he physically and psychologically assaults Sophie to vindicate the murder of the Jews. Because his treatment of her is so ugly, we cannot sympathize with Nathan's anger. Thus, the film reduces the legitimate rage of the Jews at their greatest tragedy to one man's sadomasochism. Indeed, Nathan treats Sophie in so arbitrary and so cruel a way that it recalls the behavior of her fascist tormentors. Says Stingo, in admiration of the crazy Jew:

"Nathan was a life-enlarging mentor … he was fatally glamorous."

The same could have been said of Adolph Hitler. Indeed, the depiction of Jews in SOPHIE'S CHOICE suggests that Jews — dark, dishonest, vindictive, obsessional, cruel — got just what they deserved.

The film's blaming the victim isn't limited to the Jews, however. If anyone is really asking for it, it's Sophie. Sophie seems so completely convinced of her own weakness and complicity that we begin believing in her guilt. She tells us she disappointed her father by mistyping his anti-Semitic diatribes, remarking, in sorrow, "After that, he could not trust me." Next she relates how the Nazis caught her stealing a ham for her sick mother and sent her to Auschwitz. "You were sent to Auschwitz for stealing a ham?" says an incredulous Stingo. "No," says Sophie, carefully shifting blame. "I was sent because they saw I was afraid." Even now, in the United States, Sophie feels remorse at her inability to make Nathan well. Fleeing Nathan's final murderous rage, she says tearfully to Stingo, "I should have stayed there. Maybe I could have helped him."

Neither author nor director nor fellow characters come to Sophie's aid. The film offers no critical voice telling us — or even hinting — that Sophie has an inaccurate version of reality. This terrible omission allows the audience, numbed by Sophie's continual self-blame, to believe she deserves the abuse she receives — abuse usually delivered by men. In fact, her complete lack of self-assertion, her alabaster fragility, and her evident desire to be punished reduce her to a sex object par excellence. All damage done is admissible because, like the Jews, the film lets her be perceived as less than human.

Just as author and director fail to provide a psychological context for Sophie's vulnerability (by, say, imbuing her with human characteristics other than guilt), they also fail to provide a social or political angle to temper or critique the story's emphasis on sadomasochistic sex. Because the film makes no connections between punitive sex and the world in which it thrives, sex in SOPHIE'S CHOICE exists as straightforward titillating power-play pornography. Every come-on to Sophie (and there are many) is preceded or followed by some horrible revelation or action. A Nazi guard surveys her on line at Auschwitz, tells her he wants to go to bed with her, and then takes her daughter from her. Another commandant makes much of Sophie's pure Aryan beauty — a peculiar come-on in view of the fact that her head is shaved, her body emaciated, her face chalky white and gaunt with despair. Clearly, both commandant and guard are aroused by frightened and desperate women; battered is beautiful.

The film indicates that not only German men like their women bruised. Nathan and Stingo continue the tradition. One night, Nathan comes home in a rage. Sophie has been preparing a surprise party for him, and looks soft and warm in a low-cut red velvet dress. Nathan shoves her into a chair, kneels over her, and runs his hands under her skirt and in between her thighs. He begins a vicious diatribe, accusing her of crimes ranging from infidelity to the murder of the Jews.

"Why are you living fucking around while millions of Jews died … what splendid little tricks and stratagems allowed you to survive?"

This scene is shot from overhead, so it looks like the "lovers" are fucking. As Nathan shouts at her, Sophie whimpers, cries, and, in her halting little-girl English, begs him to stop. The scene ends with a convulsive orgasmic shudder on the part of both parties.

Sophie's weakness provides the erotic center of this scene, of the novel, and of the film. Even naive and boyish Stingo is set aflame by her scarred wrists, the number on her forearm, her continual tears. Stingo's consummation with Sophie follows her most terrible story, the story of her choice. She tells Stingo, in a stricken and faltering voice, of the guard at Auschwitz who said she could keep one child, but must hand the other child over to him. The horror and terror of the scene is conveyed with uncompromising clarity in the flashback to Auschwitz. As the film returns to an image of Sophie telling the tale in the present, it is evident that nothing will heal this wound. Of the lovemaking that follows the revelation of Sophie's choice, Stingo remarks,

"My lust was insatiable."

There is yet another turn of the screw. Until we know better, we believe that Sophie's choice is going to be between two men. (Indeed, even after her story we wonder if she will choose Stingo and the farm over Nathan and the pink apartment.) Hence, the film "ironically" links this woman's greatest tragedy — the loss of her children — to her sadomasochistic sexual relations with men.

Something is morally askew with the very notion of "choice" as exploited in this story. Both Styron and Pakula evidently believe that the decision Sophie made to relinquish her daughter actually constituted a choice. In fact, Sophie had no choice in the matter. Choice presupposes a range of options in a context of existential freedom. Sophie's decision did not take place under such conditions. She made a selection within a narrowly defined context of competing evils; in such a context, choice is impossible. People in such situations have no choice, and to convince them that they do consigns them to lives marred by undeserved guilt. So is Sophie created, a woman so filled with guilt and self-hate that she willingly participates in her destruction at the hands of men. The pornographic male fantasy underlying SOPHIE'S CHOICE comes full circle when Sophie throws herself on the funeral bed with Nathan; the snuff story has finally fulfilled its promise.

Sadly, artists as talented as Styron and Pakula could not sort out the various racist and sexist threads in Sophie's story and use them to make a consistent, critical point about power relations in bed, at work, or at war. If they had, they would have brought us all a little closer to understanding the nature of evil. Instead, they simply perpetuate the abuse of the vulnerable by the strong, and, worse still, do it under the guise of benevolent noninvolvement. The romanticized double suicide which ends the tale underscores the genteel detachment of Sophie's makers; the star-crossed lovers are done in by fate. Stingo reiterates this hands-off policy. Meditating on the deaths of his friends the following day, he says,

"This was not judgment day, but morning. Morning, excellent and fair.”

We've come too far, too much has happened, and too much is at stake to accept this retreat from responsibility. Crimes against humanity are not fated; they are planned. And such crimes are completely comprehensible. Just look at their "benign" manifestations in SOPHIE'S CHOICE. The dehumanization of blacks, Jews, and women, the sickening combination of sex and violence, the massive misnaming and misblaming, the sanctification of suffering, and the elevation of death — all these pave the way for Final Solutions. To prevent the unthinkable from recurring, we must rethink, retrace, and reinterpret the roots of World History. We must also spot the lies in works like SOPHIE'S CHOICE, which, in remembering the past, simply repeat it.