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Sophie’s Choice

Sophie’s Choice

By Patrick Samuel • August 9th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Universal Pictures

Original release: December 8th, 1982
Running time: 150 minutes

Director: Alan J. Pakula
Writers: Alan J. Pakula, William Styron

Cast: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Peter MacNicol

Sophie’s Choice

We’re faced with so many choices every day. From the moment we wake up to when we leave the house for work or school and then back again, it’s an endless torrent at every turn. Yet none of these “choices” can really compare to the moral dilemma Meryl Streep faces in the 1982 film, Sophie’s Choice.

Directed by Alan J. Pakula and based on the 1980 novel by William Styron, Sophie’s Choice is a heart-wrenching drama about the horror of the holocaust, narrated by Stingo (Peter MacNicol), a writer working on a novel. After moving to Brooklyn, Stingo meets Sophie Zawistowski (Meryl Streep), a Polish Catholic immigrant, and her friend, Nathan Landau (Kevin Kline). As he finds out more about them, we do too, in a gradual way, building up to revealing the devastating choice she was forced to make.

We learn that Sophie’s father was a Nazi sympathizer and she had a lover, Józef (Neddim Prohic), who lived with his half-sister, Wanda (Katharina Thalbach), the leader of a resistance group. Sophie refuses to help them translate some stolen documents, fearing for the safety of her two children, but then Józef is murdered by the Gestapo and they are rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. As Stingo recounts her story we also learn about Nathan’s mental problems and the abuse that Sophie suffers at his hands. We find out how he came to meet her, but what really drives the story is wanting to know what happened when she arrived at Auschwitz with her children.

Sophie eventually tells Stingo of what she was forced to do. Upon arrival, a guard gives her a choice; she must decide which one of her children would be gassed and which would be sent to a labour camp. Not wanting them both to be killed, Sophie is made to do what no mother, father or anyone for that matter, should ever have to do. Not wanting both to be killed, she chooses for her daughter, Eva (Jennifer Lawn), to be killed and her son, Jan (Adrian Kaltika), to be sent to the labour camp. Sophie saved one child but in doing so, she had to let the other die, how do we begin to weigh up this kind of choice? Could she have chosen any other way? To see her wracked with guilt, remorse, shame and heartache, we also have to think about how Sophie came to this decision.

Sophie’s Choice

There were two options available. She must choose either her son or daughter or she could refuse and let them both be killed. But which choice would lead her to acting morally or immorally, knowing that either way she will cause some amount of moral damage? How does her choice affect our moral evaluation of her? How does it affect her moral evaluation of herself?

Philosophically speaking, there is the Kantian approach to the dilemma. This relates to the philosophy of Emmanuel Kant and implies that an action is morally right if it can be universally and impartially applied; that by following reasoning, if it is right for me to act in this way, then it must also be right for you. Sophie, in trying to make a choice in Kantian terms between her children, would be utterly unable to do it based on fairness. How can she choose life for one and death for the other? If she chooses the death of one, this would be the means to save the other. She would have to surrender the choice altogether in order to treat them impartially and unbiased. Her unconditional love for both children is what would make this the Kantian approach.

There would also be the Utilitarian approach to the problem. This approach would be to choose the action that would lead to an increase in the most amount of happiness possible, or in this Sophie’s Choicecase, the least amount of suffering. There is only one choice available here and that would be to comply with the demand and choose one child out of the two to die – but which one? How does she decide?

Would it be harder for a girl to survive in a concentration camp than it would be for a boy? Would Eva be able to live these conditions? Is Jan stronger and better equipped to cope with the harshness of the conditions he is about to face? What about their ages? Does that also play a part? Eva is the younger of the two. I think Sophie’s decision was ultimately not based on which child she loved the most but who would suffer the most in the camp which is why she chose to end Eva’s life.

Sophie acted as morally as she could but the very demand that such a choice must be made is what was immoral in this situation. I do wonder why Sophie didn’t surrender her own life at that moment with her children’s (instead of waiting as long as she did), seeing as her choices were not really choices to begin with – the guard rigged the situation to ensure the most suffering possible; she had nothing else to lose.

While we may judge her on her actions and weigh up her options there’s no telling how we would choose until it actually happens to us. In the end, she really wasn’t given a choice, from the moment the guard came walking by and saw her, the choice was made for her and what was given to her was only the illusion of one.

Sophie’s Choice

Patrick Samuel

Patrick Samuel

The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is an emerging artist with a philosophy degree, working primarily with pastels and graphite pencils, but he also enjoys experimenting with water colours, acrylics, glass and oil paints.

Being on the autistic spectrum with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is stimulated by bold, contrasting colours, intricate details, multiple textures, and varying shades of light and dark. Patrick's work extends to sound and video, and when not drawing or painting, he can be found working on projects he shares online with his followers.

Patrick returned to drawing and painting after a prolonged break in December 2016 as part of his daily art therapy, and is now making the transition to being a full-time artist. As a spokesperson for autism awareness, he also gives talks and presentations on the benefits of creative therapy.

Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and science fiction, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.

Patrick Samuel ¦ Asperger Artist

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