AFI Catalog of Feature Films
Summary View of Movie
Name Occurs Before Title Offscreen Credit Print Viewed By AFI
Sophie's Choice
Director: Alan J. Pakula (Dir)
Release Date:   10 Dec 1982
Duration (in mins):  151 or 157
Print this page
Display Movie Detail

Cast: Meryl Streep  (Sophie [Zawistowska])
  Kevin Kline  (Nathan [Landau])
  Peter MacNicol  (Stingo)

Summary: In 1947, a young Southern man nicknamed “Stingo” chases his dream of becoming a novelist and rents a room in the "Pink Palace" boarding house in Brooklyn, New York. One day, he finds a book of Walt Whitman poetry containing a letter inviting him to dine with his upstairs neighbors, a Jewish pharmaceutical researcher named Nathan Landau, and his Polish émigré girl friend, Sophie Zawitowska. After overhearing the couple loudly making love, Stingo later witnesses Nathan abusing Sophie on the staircase. When Nathan catches Stingo eavesdropping, he mocks his Southern drawl and leaves Sophie, who tearfully excuses his behavior and returns to her room. That evening, Sophie brings Stingo a tray of food, and he notices numbers branded onto her forearm from her time spent in a World War II Nazi concentration camp. As Stingo returns his empty dishes, he watches Nathan enter the house and collapse in Sophie’s loving embrace. The next morning, Nathan and Sophie invite Stingo for an outing to Coney Island. Over breakfast, Nathan is affectionate with Sophie and explains that he nursed his ailing girl friend back to health after her period in captivity. She solemnly withdraws when discussing her late parents, whom she says spoke out against the Nazis. Although Stingo is unable to forget the heated words exchanged between the couple the previous night, he stays at the boarding house and soon becomes their closest friend. In one of her English lessons, Sophie’s teacher notices that she has grown increasingly anemic, and she later passes out in the library. Nathan instantly appears at her side and brings her home, where he puts her to sleep and cooks her dinner. She does not immediately recognize Nathan, but accepts him as her caretaker as he reads aloud poetry by Emily Dickinson. Meanwhile, Stingo courts a wealthy, seemingly sexually-liberated girl named Leslie Lapidus, who is ultimately too nervous to engage in intercourse. Dejected and sexually frustrated, Stingo returns home to Sophie, who reveals that she was once married to one of her professor father’s young disciples. Despite her Catholic upbringing, Sophie was taken to Auschwitz following her father’s murder and her mother’s death from tuberculosis. After being released, she lost her faith in God and attempted to commit suicide in a Swedish refugee camp. As Stingo tries to comfort her, Sophie grows worried that Nathan has not yet returned from work, and is annoyed with Stingo for questioning her lover’s obsession with the persecution of escaped Nazi war criminals. Just then, Nathan walks in and becomes jealously agitated by their presence alone together, but Sophie calms his perilously mounting temper. The next day, Nathan makes amends by offering to read Stingo’s writings while Sophie takes him to the cinema. When they return home, he leads them to the Brooklyn Bridge and uncorks a bottle of champagne, toasting Stingo’s imminent success. One day, Nathan brings gifts for his friends to celebrate a medical breakthrough at work, promising to share the news later that evening. Upon his return, however, he accuses Sophie of committing adultery with one of their acquaintances, unaware that she met the man in question to have a gift made for Nathan. Consumed with rage, Nathan insults Stingo’s novel and taunts Sophie for surviving Auschwitz while millions of Jewish people died. When Sophie and Nathan move out in the middle of the night, Stingo attempts to track her location by speaking with a Polish professor at the nearby university. The man reveals that, contrary to Sophie’s claims, her father was a fervent anti-Semite. As Stingo prepares to return home to the South, Sophie stops by the house and agrees to tell him the truth about her past: Although she deeply loved her father, she transcribed his speeches and soon became aware that he supported the Nazi plan for Jewish extermination. She took a lover in Warsaw, Poland, whose sister led a resistance movement against the Germanization of the Polish people. Afraid to endanger her children, Sophie refused to join them, and her lover was soon killed. Due to their association, however, she was sent to Auschwitz, where her daughter was murdered and her son sent to a children’s camp. With her German language and secretarial skills, Sophie was allowed to personally serve Commandant Rudolf Hoess, and relocated to a private room in his cellar. Another prisoner asked her to seduce Hoess and smuggle a radio in exchange for the possibility of her son’s release. During her initial meeting with Hoess, Sophie explained her father’s beliefs and implored him to recognize the injustice of her imprisonment. The officer refused, citing her Polish heritage, but found himself attracted to Sophie’s “Aryan” appearance. To resist physical temptation, he decided to send her back to the camp while reluctantly agreeing to release her son to be raised as a German. Sophie ultimately failed to steal the radio, and Hoess broke his promise to save her boy, driving her to attempt suicide. Finishing her story, Sophie falls asleep in Stingo’s arms and later awakens to find Nathan sitting on the curb. He moves back into the house, and the three resume their happy friendship until one day, Nathan’s brother, Larry, reveals to Stingo that Nathan is a paranoid schizophrenic and cocaine addict who lied about his biology degree. Charged with keeping watch over Nathan’s ever-changing temperament, Stingo returns home in time to witness Nathan propose marriage to Sophie. As the landlady shares Nathan’s supposed claim of discovering a cure for polio, the boy learns that the couple has disappeared. Sophie immediately returns, and Nathan telephones, again accusing her and Stingo of having an affair. Sure that he will kill them both, they flee to Washington, D.C. Stingo hopes to marry Sophie and raise a family on a farm in Richmond, Virginia, and she half-heartedly agrees to go, provided they do not wed. He insists, but she again refuses, revising her story to reveal her final secret: Upon arriving at Auschwitz, a German officer threatened to kill both her children unless she chose between them, prompting her to sacrifice her daughter. Overcome with emotion, Sophie and Stingo make love, but Sophie leaves him with a note stating that her guilt has driven her back to Nathan. Sometime later, Stingo learns that Nathan and Sophie poisoned themselves. He returns to the boarding house, where their bodies lie intertwined on the bed next to a book of Emily Dickinson poetry. Letting go of his rage and sorrow for the couple, Stingo finally leaves Brooklyn to begin the next stage of his life. 

Distribution Company: Universal Pictures
Associated Film Distribution Corp.
Production Company: ITC Entertainment
Marble Arch Productions
Director: Alan J. Pakula (Dir)
  William C. Gerrity (Unit prod mgr)
  Alex Hapsas (1st asst dir)
  Joseph Ray (2d asst dir)
  Sergio Mimica (Asst dir, Yugoslavia loc unit)
  Michea Caye (DGA trainee)
Producer: Alan J. Pakula (Prod)
  Keith Barish (Prod)
  William C. Gerrity (Assoc prod)
  Martin Starger (Exec prod)
Writer: Alan J. Pakula (Scr)

Subject Major: Auschwitz (Concentration camp)
  Battered women
  World War II
Subject Minor: Children
  Death and dying
  Drug addicts
  New York City--Brooklyn
  Postwar life

Display Movie Detail
The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
Advanced Search
Support our efforts to preserve hisotory of film
Help AFI Preserve Film History

© 2017 American Film Institute.
All rights reserved.
Terms of use.