1982’s drama Sophie’s Choice clocks in at #92 on the AFI list, although, as we will discuss later, I do not understand why.
Sophie’s Choice is set in 1947 Brooklyn where a young writer from Virginia named Stingo has just moved to a boarding house. His first night, he sees a couple breaking up in the hallway and has words with the boyfriend. The next day, Sophie, the girlfriend, brings him some food and while he is returning the dishes, he sees them making up.
The next day, Nathan apologies for the prior night and invites Stingo to hang out with them. While hanging out, he learns that Sophie is a Polish Catholic who was at the concentration camp at Auschwitz and Nathan is an American-born Jew who works as a biologist for Pfizer.
We see a flashback scene where Nathan meets Sophie after she collapses from anemia at a library and he helps her get help.
Nathan sets Stingo up with Lesley, a self described “nympho”, who it turns out, loves to say “fuck” but is psychologically unable to actually have sex. After a failed date with her, he returns home and Sophie has a drink with him and tells him about her prior life. She tells him her father and husband were rounded up and killed by the Nazis because her father was an anti-Nazi academic lecturer. She shares that she was sent to the camp for stealing a ham. She shows Stingo marks on her arm from where she tried to commit suicide after being released from the camp. Stingo also learns Nathan is obsessed with the Nazis and with them not being dealt justice. Nathan comes home and is accusatory about why Stingo is there. Sophie calms him down and he apologizes.
The next day Nathan comes to see Stingo and reads his writing. Stingo and Sophie go to a movie and upon their return, Nathan takes them to the Brooklyn Bridge and toasts Stingo as the next great American writer.
At a picnic the next day, Nathan announces he has made a major scientific breakthrough at Pfizer. Sophie and Stingo go to get him champagne and gifts, but upon returning home, Nathan accuses Sophie of having an affair and belittles her for surviving the holocaust while so many Jews died. He pushes Stingo out of the room.
The next day Sophie and Nathan have disappeared. Stingo goes looking for them and while searching for them, comes across a Professor who knew Sophie and shares that her father was, in fact, a Nazi sympathizer, who gave many anti-semitic speeches. When Sophie returns to pack up some of her things, Stingo confronts her about the lie. Later that night, she tells him more about her story.
Her father was an anti-semite, a fact she only learned while transcribing a speech for him where he talked about “exterminating” Jews. He and her husband was executed anyway because the Nazis executed all of Polish academia. After her husband, she had a lover named Josef, who was involved in the Nazi resistance with his half-sister Wanda. Sophie had refused to help them and they were rounded up and executed by the gestapo.
After she was taken to Auschwitz, she was given a job working for the commandant because of her language skills. She is asked by a member of the resistance to steal a radio from the commandant’s daughter to help them. The commandant attempts to kiss her but is interrupted. She begs him for the release of her son (her daughter had been killed shortly after coming to the camp), citing her father’s anti-semitism as proof that she is loyal to the Nazis. He initially refuses but eventually agrees. She attempts to steal the radio, but the commandant’s daughter catches her. After fainting and talking to her about her swimming competitions, she apparently decides not to turn Sophie in. The commandant does not keep his word and her son is not released.
Flash forward and Sophie and Stingo wake up in each other’s arms. Nathan shows up at the front of the house and Sophie and Nathan reconcile and move their stuff back in.
Nathan’s brother gets a hold of Stingo and lets him know that Nathan is not, in fact a biologist. He is a paranoid schizophrenic who is addicted to cocaine. He asks Stingo to keep an eye on him.
Nathan proposes to Sophie and asks Stingo to be his best man, but the next day, almost breaks Sophie’s arms and calls Stingo to “god damn” him to “hell”, accusing them both of an affair. He says he is coming to kill them and fires a gun. Sophie and Stingo flee to a hotel in Washington.
In Washington, Stingo proposes to Sophie and asks her to come to Virginia with him. Sophie says she will come to Virginia but not marry him and shares more of her story from the concentration camp. On her first night, she was forced by a German officer to choose between her two children. She pleaded with the officer, saying that they are not Jews and are “racially pure” but he is not moved. She ultimately chooses her daughter to be killed and her son to survive.
Sophie and Stingo have sex, but when Stingo wakes up the next morning, Sophie is gone and has left a letter saying that he is a fantastic lover but that she must return to Nathan.
We then cut forward to Sophie and Nathan dead in a bed, Nathan had poisoned both of them with cyanide.
I struggled a lot with this film and its inclusion in the top 100 list. Let me first be positive and list the things that I liked about it:
- Meryl Streep (Sophie) gives an absolutely outstanding performance and the two other key roles Kevin Kline as Nathan and Peter MacNicol as Stingo were also solid
- The movie was clearly impactful enough that the term “Sophie’s Choice” has become part of the lexicon
- I loved some of the elements of moral ambiguity in the film – Sophie is a victim of the Nazi’s but also does despicable things to try to save herself such as aligning with anti-semites
There was, however, a LOT that I didn’t like about this film:
- The movie spent way to much on set-up without really setting anything up. We are more than halfway through the two and a half hour film before we even see the first flashback. I’m all for character development, but even after an hour and fifteen minutes we don’t know much about any of the characters. The epic “Sophie’s Choice” that the film is named for gets a scant few minutes at nearly the end of the film with no context or discussion around her thought process.
- The film has an odd tone of anti-semitism to it – Nathan as the raging Jew, Sophie as the blond-haired girl pushing her privilege over the Jews at the camp.
- The movie has an incredibly uneven feel to it between the 1947 scenes between Sophie, Nathan and Stingo and the flashback scenes in Sophie’s past – it’s almost two completely different movies jammed together as one that don’t meld particularly well.
I’m baffled at this film’s inclusion on the list. I’m not saying it is a horrible film – it is above average, primarily due to Streep’s performance and the wonderfully stylized camera work, but it is not great. At the time, the film received mixed reviews and didn’t even receive a nomination for the Best Picture award (Chariots of Fire, a good but not great film won that year and On Golden Pond and Raiders of the Lost Ark, two MUCH better films, were nominated). It was not on the original 1997 AFI list and I struggle with how this movie bumped some great films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Amadeus, Frankenstein, Fargo and Fantasia from the list. Oh well, I guess we are all entitled to our opinion.
Production Quality 8/10
Rewatch Value 4/10
Overall Score 25/40
Next up, 1936’s Swing Time.