These two films share so much in common that it is surprising strong parallels have not been drawn before. Both films highlight strong female performances (coincidentally both include German accents), the holocaust, a difficult decision to be made that changes the protagonist for the rest of her life, tragic endings, younger men falling for older women and holocaust victims that move to the United States.
If we go one step further in analyzing Meryl Streep v. Kate Winslet, the similarities get more eerie. Both were 33 years old when their respective films came out. Streep gave the performance of her lifetime in a flawless Polish accent and won an Oscar. Winslet has been evolving ever since her debut in the mid-90s and many agree she has peaked in 2008 and expect her to win this year’s Oscar. Her performance was in a natural German accent. Both actresses were double nominated at the Golden Globes. Both actresses are versatile in both drama and comedy. Both hold records when it comes to Oscar nominations: Meryl Streep has the most Oscar nominations of any actor in history and Kate Winslet is the youngest actor to reach six Oscar nominations. And of course, both are nominated against each other for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
The characters themselves were fundamentally different, as one was a prisoner in the concentration camp while the other was a guard. Yet, the trauma in the camps tore both sides apart. Both Streep’s Sophie and Winslet’s Hanna shrouded their pasts in mystery to cover up the decisions they made in the camps. Sophie was more conscious of her wrongdoing than Hanna, but both lives were irreparably damaged in the end, precluding them from leading normal lives once they had reached “freedom.” Their decisions destroyed not only their own lives, but impacted those of the men around them. While Nathan was a paranoid schizophrenic in Sophie’s Choice, his suspicions of how Sophie managed to survive the concentration camp fed his paranoia. Furthermore, Sophie’s story dashed the optimistic naivete Stingo embodied. In The Reader, Michael Berg was never able to have another successful relationship after Hanna. It seems that anyone that went through the camps, either prisonder or guard, emerged as only a shell of who they were before. After they are let back into society, their emptiness acts as a black hole, sucking the life from everyone around them and exponentially magnifying the emptiness.
Neither film attempts to answer which decisions or which actions were right nor do they place blame on their protagonists. At one point while on trial, Hanna says “What would have you have done?” and the same question can be applied to Sophie. Both women had to make decisions that fractured their humanity, but they were placed in situations that none of us could fathom being in. None of us can know what we would have done and we should pray every day that we will never have to know. And thus, we cannot judge either of these women for what they had done. We should not judge these women for making impossible decisions in situations that never should have existed.