It Was Mother

It Was Of

It Was Of
Wayras Olivier
AUGUST 2019


OF ALL THE FILMS that have scenes of recreational sadism, if one had to be singled out as unwatchable, the ending in Sophie’s Choice might just be the one. She’s forced to choose which of her two children are to be interned to a death camp by an officer of the Schutzstaffel. The S.S. officer’s shock and awe tactic—how a sadist thinks in the first place, and how this thinking is administered as torture in the second—is a war crime of the sort prosecuted in Nuremberg in 1945.

Never tried, of course, was the sadist from Braunau am Inn. A failure of a painter who, during the Night of Long Knives in the summer of 1934, systematically cleaned out his cabinet, installing a new one. Under his directorship it would not be open to work when Jews were being cowed during the Night of Broken Glass—but a slight demonstration of his handiwork to come in the fall of 1942. Both of these “Nights” were in embryo as far back as 1925, with entries in Mein Kampf—hatching The Greater German Reich, and writing as he did to equal the formulations of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Der Stürmer. This was Hitler’s preamble to the Wannsee Conference of 1942—wherein the ideas of how to not make light of the Jewish question was bookended by The Final Solution.

As for the film, it is no less true that “undesirables” of all kinds were sent to Auschwitz and similar concentration camps. William Styron, author of Sophie’s Choice, used this fact to justify Sophie being a Polish untermensch. But it is through picking a subject that is binary—malevolence and suffering (to tragedize as universal in the human condition), but also choosing a concentration camp, a not-so-universal setting, why Styron can’t quite in execution make his subject cohere as universal. The malevolence inflicted upon Sophie by the S.S. officer comes from a malevolence conceived to affect the Final Solution. The horror is not, by making Sophie a gentile rather than a Jew, more comprehensive because of this. Even though she suffers inordinately because of it, it is nonetheless a tragic effect—collateral damage, in other words—of the Shoah. The difference in affect/effect, as it relates to malevolence, and how Styron probes the latter, perhaps incautiously, negates the universality of human suffering in his tragedy on the grounds of how it is predicated.

I am convinced that this is what deified film critic, Pauline Kael, in the December 1982 issue of The New Yorker, was trying to say, in her rather clumsy extirpation of Sophie’s Choice. Most decidedly about its climax: “the incident is garish rather than illuminating,” she errs completely when she says, “and too particular to demonstrate anything in general.” Ms. Kael, prioritizing the general over the specific, implies that films are, in essence, high art if and only when they reveal something general, rather than specific, about the human condition—an absurd proposition. Yet understandably the precondition for—because illumination can never be had from the general—her registered disappointment.

As for “superior orders,” the retrospective justification defendants at Nuremberg stuck to, take a look at the scene halfway through Schindler’s List where Steven Spielberg and Steven Zaillian disprove rationalizations suchlike, and how brilliantly the scene is set up. S.S. Officer, Amon Goeth, is slobberingly inebriated the night Schindler advises him on the humane ways in which people in power mind their p’s and q’s. Certainly, a hangover should have rendered this bit of folk wisdom irretrievable from mind, yet the said Nazi recalls it the following morning to great affect. He’s merciful and lenient to the internees of Płaszów, if only for a few scenes before leniency and mercy are repudiated (for repudiation’s sake). Which is to say that only when a scene is specific can it reveal—a human owning or otherwise disowning basic goodness suddenly—what is universal.

W.