Friday, August 8, 2008

Sophie's Choice

Saw the film, directed by Alan J. Pakula. First, do let me say it's very moving. Despite the questions I had (from very early on when the 'ethnic kingdom of the pink palace' is painted that color because of the Jewish landlord's frugality), they never removed my concern for Sophie (Meryl Streep) as a Holocaust survivor dealing with the memory. I would recommend seeing it. And there's also a documentary on the DVD that discusses the theme of survivors' guilt in the film which is very worth watching. Even if what I say were to dissaude you from seeing the film, it would still be worth it to see it so that you could also watch the documentary. However, it also needs to be critiqued something fierce. The novel, by William Styron, won the National Book Award and is widely considered a classic. The film is #91 on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 best films ever. This post is based entirely on the film.

While I knew it's been somewhat criticized as one of surprisingly many Holocaust films that are not primarily about Jews, there's more to it that I think is extremely disturbing. [What follows contains many spoilers of varying degrees.]

Set shortly after WWII in the late 40s. Sophie is a Polish Catholic survivor of Auschwitz. Nathan (Kevin Kline, who's at his best) is her Jewish, American boyfriend who didn't even fight in the war. Though brilliant, expansive, and generous in a way, Nathan is also prone to extreme jealousy and emotional cruelty. He is a liar and has a frighteningly violent, perhaps homicidal, streak. The first time Nathan and Sophie appear onscreen, they are arguing on the stairs. Nathan rattles off a list of diseases to compare Sophie to before he turns to Stingo (the narrator, typically assumed to be Styron) to ask (miming masturbation) if he got off watching the fight. He is diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, though this is so shallow that even director Pakula incorrectly describes him as manic-depressive in the commentary. That's a better fit with Nathan's behavior, but still it's neither completely necessary or satisfactory to explain Nathan's actions. Rather, Nathan's Jewishness is the reason for his craziness. The actual diagnosis is superfluous.

The only other Jewish character given any real screen time is Leslie Lapidus, an archetypal Jewish Princess. She compulsively talks about fucking, inviting Stingo to her house for the weekend while her parents are away. She immediately begins making out with him, but when Stingo puts her hand on his penis she screams. It comes out that she has reached a "plateau" in her therapy so that she is now capable of saying "fuck" but she is still incapable of going past making out. So, in a comic way, we see the stereotype of rich, vulgar, neurotically frigid, Jewish girls.

Returning home from Leslie's, Stingo talks with Sophie. Sophie is everything Leslie is not as a woman. Sensual and deep with real tragedy in her life in contrast to Leslie's neuroticism. They talk about Sophie's past, how her father had helped the Jews before the war and how Sophie wound up in Auschwitz. Sophie brings Stingo into Nathan's room searching for more liquor. There are books about and pictures of Nazis and Holocaust victims filling the room. She explains that Nathan is obsessed with Nazis escaping justice. Stingo naively understands that a Jew would be obsessed by such a thing when Sophie corrects him, comparing Nathan's experience to hers. "You don't know him." (Quotes may be imperfect.) When Nathan shows up he describes the room as his "sanctum sanctorum" saying to Stingo "now you know my deepest secrets." The scene explicitly pits Sophie's experience against Nathan's obsession with Nazis escaping justice. In that way, it demeans the way American Jews were affected by the Holocaust. In Stingo's desire for Sophie and her mature sexuality, the victim is feminized so that Stingo can romanticize the oppressed and match a philosemitic understanding of Holocaust victims with an antisemitism directed at Jews when they are not saliently oppressed.

Before Nathan defuses the situation by changing topics, he is clearly angry and threatening. We identify with Stingo as he vies with Nathan as Sophie's protector, suppressing the need for a Jewish role in fighting antisemitism. Or, indeed a Jewish role in antisemitism at all, as Sophie substitutes for Jews. Yet she is a deeply traumatized and scarred woman who cannot find what she needs in a healthier relationship. It makes sense she would seek out someone else also deeply damaged. She ultimately embodies the philosemitic/antisemitic narrative that Jews' own insanity, the result of past antisemitism, is the source of future Jewish tragedy while inverting the Jewish role in the tragedy so that Jews become the oppressors.

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