The meaning of the original choice Sophie was forced to make in the movie (and novel) Sophie’s Choice is becoming more and more diluted as people inappropriately use it for wacky or trivial metaphors. I wonder if those who throw the phrase around in reference to breakfast choices, or where to go on vacation, have any idea of what it is they’re referring to. Having seen Sophie’s Choice when it came out in 1982, I still haven’t lost the mental image of that awful movie moment. To refresh my memory before writing about it, I visited YouTube and watched the scene again.
(SPOILER ALERT: This is a closing scene to a film that, until this moment, had avoided revealing the “choice” alluded to in the film’s title. I am also telling it below.)
To recap: Sophie, a young mother of two played by Meryl Streep, has been taken to a Nazi camp. She stands on a long line holding her daughter in her arms, her son standing beside her, waiting to be….killed? processed? sent to work? The people on line don’t know where they’re going, they’ve only heard whispers of rumors in the ghetto. A Nazi soldier comes walking slowly down the line, and stops in front of Sophie to admire her beauty. He asks her if she’s one of those “dirty Commies” or if she’s Jewish. The terror on her face intensifies with his every word, but finally he walks away without doing anything.
But then Sophie calls desperately after him, obviously thinking to save herself and her kids: “I’m not a Jew, I am Catholic, I believe in Christ.” Apparently she’s unaware that the Nazis also hated Catholics, and that she’s blundered. The Nazi comes back and tells her that, since she’s not a Jew, she can keep ONE of her children; she must choose which one. Of course, she can’t, and just as the Nazi is about to take both kids away from her, Sophie puts the girl down on the ground, gives her a little push, and says, “Take my daughter.” She is instantly sorry, as the Nazi walks off carrying the screaming little girl over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.
Streep’s facial expressions here are incredible, and the whole scene is just devastating. Watching it yesterday for only the second time ever, I saw more in it than I had the first time around. For one thing, had Sophie just kept quiet, the Nazi would’ve kept on walking; it is her insistence that she deserves saving for not being Jewish that brings about that terrible “choice.” (Of course, something horrendous, maybe even worse, though worse is unimaginable, might have happened ten minutes later anyway.) On this viewing I also realized that in this moment Sophie turns insane, that it explains everything we’ve seen of her up until now.
Now, 30 years later, someone says, “It’s the Sophie’s Choice of the fashion industry.” People! Get a grip! There can be no such thing as a Sophie’s Choice of the fashion industry! On the sitcom Happily Divorced, Fran must choose who to take with her on her free trip to Mexico – her best friend or her ex-husband. She throws up her hands and cries, “This is like Sophie’s choice!” Ex-hubby replies, “Sophie chose the male.” Is anyone else offended? Actually, I’m not offended: I’m stunned.
Thinking about all this got me to pondering the perks of growing old: I’ve been around long enough to have seen Sophie’s Choice, and to know that the way people are using it is bizarre. Similar realizations occur these days about a lot of things, not just movies: as we age we get to observe behavioral patterns, historical events, societal changes, and people’s reactions to all of the above. We’ve accumulated tons of data in our memory banks (even if some of it is frequently inaccessible!) This must be what they mean by wisdom. If we pay attention, we don’t just grow older, but wiser.
I’m paying attention.
A pocketbook named The Sophie’s Choice