Wednesday 29 June 2011

"Don't you see, Sophie? We're dying."

      It was Meryl Streep's birthday few days back. As clichéd as it sounds, she really is one of my most favourite actresses, if not the one. She can do all sorts of things, all sorts of roles- from a distraught mother to a devilish fashionista, Holocaust-survivor to iconic chef, and now she'd gonna be the Iron Lady. And whatever she does, she is just so good. But I, myself, had not understood her true greatness till I finally saw Sophie's Choice. I had anyways been in my Holocaust mood since I finished The Book Thief (oh what a book!) and so I sat down on 22nd June, 2011- Meryl Streep's 62nd birthday, and watched what is often said to be one of the greatest cinematic performances ever.

         The film is set right after World War 2, when a Southerner named Stingo decides to venture out to Brooklyn, New York, in hopes to find inspiration and solitude to write his novel. He rents a room in a great big and rather odd-looking rose-colored house. The first day in, he's invited by the tenants living on the floor above his- Nathan and Sophie, for dinner. Except the first meeting does not go as planned, when he sees a hysterical Nathan screaming at the sobbing Sophie, and when Stingo tries to cut in, he and his Southern accent gets mocked too. After sometime, Sophie comes to give Stingo his promised dinner. When he goes to return it, he sees a distraught Sophie sleeping on a chair. Then he hears Nathan quietly creeping back up, and he and Sophie reconcile...he whispers to he “Don’t you see Sophie, we're dying." Nathan and Sophie decide to befriend the very inexperienced Stingo, and Stingo finds out that Sophie was a Polish immigrant who had been rescued from dying painfully by many a deadly disease by Nathan, who is apparently a brilliant biologist, and his doctor brother. Something in him tells Stingo that he should flee from this odd couple, but he remains and they all become the best of friends.

         One evening, after a failed date, when Stingo returns, he finds Sophie all worried about Nathan, who is hasn’t returned from work and it’s very late. She calls him to have a drink, and while they’re talking, she reveals to him that she was married once. She says that her professor father was completely anti-Nazis and this had resulted in him and her husband, who was her father’s assistant to be taken away by the Germans and get executed. Also her mother had died from tuberculosis and for trying to save her by bringing in some smuggled ham, Sophie had been caught by the German soldiers and sent to the Auschwitz concentration camps. She also tells Stingo on how after hearing her story, Nathan, who was Jewish, had become obsessed with the Nazis. While they are discussing this, Nathan returns, in a bit of a haggard state, much like the first night and starts to get angry at both of them, but Sophie controls him.

          Nathan steals Stingo’s novel from him one day and reads it, while Sophie takes Stingo out. He then takes them to the Brooklyn Bridge and, with champagne, declares that his friend is the next great novelist. After a few days, he tells them that the project that his team had been working on has been completed, and it is so great that he will win the Nobel Prize for it. He gets a beautiful dress and shoes for Sophie and a coat for Stingo as gifts. That night both of them get dressed up and wait for Nathan to return, so that they could all celebrate his triumph. Except when he does come, he’s in one of his “moods”. He harasses Sophie and when Stingo tries to stop him, he starts to demean his novel. When Sophie runs away the next day, Stingo goes to look for her, and meets a professor who had previously known Sophie’s father. He reveals that the man was actually a ruthless Anti-Semite. Stingo is stunned to find this out and when later Sophie returns and he confronts her with this information, she says she lied because she didn’t want to be hated and left alone.

       Later she tells him her story- about how she revered her father, and translated a speech for him in which he proposed the total extermination of Jews, but it had made many mistakes, causing her father to get disappointed in her. She revealed that she had a lover, and his sister, who was a Resistance leader, had asked her to translate some stolen Gestapo documents, but she had declined the offer to protect her children. Her lover was later killed, and she was taken to Auschwitz with her son Jan and daughter Eva. Jan was sent to the children’s camp and Eva was exterminated. Because of her qualifications, Sophie was sent to intern for the German commander Rudolf Höss. She tried to woo him with her Aryan looks so that he would send Jan to the Lebensborn programme, and he promised to get him to meet her, but he did no such thing and instead sent her back to the camps.

        Nathan returns and everything seems to go back to normal. Stingo is then called by Nathan’s brother who reveals the truth about Nathan. Nathan is not a part of any research group, or a biologist. He simply works in a pharmaceutical company, and all his brilliance and lies are because he is in fact a paranoid schizophrenic. He tells Stingo to keep an eye out for him, especially when he is on drugs which he can easily obtain. Sophie knows nothing of this. Nathan proposes to Sophie, which she accepts, but has an attack again and starts believing that Sophie and Stingo are having an affair behind his back, and threatens them with a gun over the phone. Sophie and Stingo flee and take refuge in a hotel where he asks her to come to his father’s farm with him and marry him because he loves her. It is then that Sophie reveals her biggest secret...about a choice she had once made.
         Now as usual I have revealed all of the story but the ending. I kind of already knew about it because of one of the four Modern Family episodes that I have ever seen, but it was still very shocking. Bloody were they so cruel?

          The story has three main aspects, each connected to the three chief characters. Stingo's story is that of a wide-eyed kid who comes to New York for a great adventure, and in many ways he does get one, though not exactly of the kind he had in mind. An older Stingo is the narrator of the story, so we understand that as time has passed, he has made peace with the whole experience. The younger Stingo reminded me of Michael Pitt's character in The Dreamers- someone desperate to make friends, and when he finds the friends of his dreams, he is bedazzled by them so much that he overlooks their overbearing flaws. In all the innocence of youth he falls in love with them- with Nathan because of his eccentricities and Sophie because of her beauty and then sorrows. He is the only one who knows both their secrets and he accepts them, and as he is the eyes of the audience in a way, we accept them too. His is the "coming-of-age" story.

          Sophie's story is about her previous life in Poland and in the Auschwitz concentration camps. The oppression and torture by Nazis is infamous throughout film history, and this is no exception. Schindler's List had the good German POV, The Pianist had the Polish Jew POV. Sophie's POV was of a woman- a daughter, a wife, a mother, who endures a fate worse than most. She is puzzled by, yet in awe of her father's Anti-Jew feelings. She regularly wants to do the right thing, but she keeps avoiding them to protect the people she loves, which is not exactly wrong. I am always amazed by the Nazis; I mean I get that people were sad in Germany and Hitler tried to make things better, but how is it that almost an entire nation of people are reduced to such an extreme form of hatred and cruelty? I like my villains, but they have some class, and Nazis were just...  JEGEGN(&$#@VKL*@GNVWJLB!@$%#GOFLEN%(&GFLBG
God they infuriate me so! So Sophie's was the Holocaust story.

         Which takes me to the final story, and my favourite one- Nathan and Sophie's crazy, turbulent, sadomasochistic even, love affair. It just made so much sense to me. Ofcourse Sophie needed someone like Nathan- while he made her laugh and happy, he was also the punishment she inflicted upon herself. And obviously Nathan wanted someone like Sophie- a survivor, a sad soul, a beauty, like a fallen heroine from a story that he had read, and he could almost let his wild imagination run with her. Nathan and Sophie's love was contagious and deadly- they were a very striking couple to look at and even a more striking one to know. Stingo had to fall in love with them...who couldn't? They are the happiest pair one moment, and the very next moment Nathan is calling Sophie a disease. Lady Gaga's Bad Romance- right here people! And I am one of those who loves a story of over-consuming love, and that's just what this is.

        The story is adapted from William Styron's novel of the same name by the writer and director Alan J. Pakula. I thought it was well-written and directed. I liked the parallel storylines- Stingo's narration of his encounter with Nathan and Sophie and Sophie's tale. One of the things I really enjoyed, and I thought was quite novel, was the happier parts of the story. I had known this to be a Holocaust-related film, and I was quite surprised to find myself smiling when Nathan and Sophie dance or when they all go to Coney Island or Stingo's date with Leslie Lapidus.

            What I think really drives the film is the cast. Oh Meryl, Meryl, do you do such things? The first time she speaks in that Polish-accented broken English, and I have already forgotten that this is the same Meryl Streep I had seen so many times before. She is so beautiful as Sophie...she glows like how the actresses of old used to. I love the desperation with which she tries to stay happy. For instance the scene when they're all at the piano and she's telling Stingo about her mother, and she gets sad for a second and then starts laughing at her silly grief. The Polish she speaks sounds perfect I believed that she really was a native. The director shows the two periods of her life in two shades- the present in bright colours, where she is healthy and almost always with a smile, and the past in dull greys, where her she is almost catatonic because the concentration camps had wrung out every emotion from her life and she had become a like non-human. Meryl manages to excel in both these parts. Her narration is so unique...I've never heard such an accent ever, and her sadness is so apparent in her voice. And my god...the choice scene, it's so heartbreaking! Her chemistry with both Kevin Kline, who plays Nathan and Peter MacNicol, who plays Stingo, is great. Especially with the former.

        I loved Kevin Kline in this film. Nathan had to be over-the-top because of his mental illness, and he acted it all out so perfectly. From the mean-spirited screaming and ridiculing to the exclamations of love and praise, he totally won me over. And he was so handsome and Meryl was so beautiful...they looked like such a power couple except for the craziness. I knew MacNicol from Bean, and it was so surprising to see him in this role. But he too was very good- the naivety and the thirst and the wonderment of youth, he was all of these things. His relationship with Sophie was like a teenager with his first crush, and as their relationship evolves, so does he.

          So in the end I will say that if you are like me, an eternal Nazi-hater, and Holocaust-movie lover, and a messed-up relationship-admirer, and most importantly, a Meryl Streep fan, you should definitely check this film out.

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