Meryl Streep has had an illustrious career, to say the very least. From starring in The Deer Hunter to the Mamma Mia franchise, her filmography is a varied one, comprised of iconic roles that display Streep as one of the most dextrous actors of the contemporary era. There’s no subject matter that Streep is afraid of tackling, and this has allowed her to deliver time and time again with minimal misfires.
One of the finest performances Streep has given came in the form of the Holocaust survivor Zofia ‘Sophie’ Zawistowski in Alan J. Pakula’s 1982 psychological drama Sophie’s Choice. Playing a Polish immigrant who hides a dark secret whilst dealing with an emotionally unstable boyfriend, the performance remains one of her most astounding roles, as the script and character deal with themes that are enough to make even the strongest of us feel nauseous as the true horrors of Hitler’s evil are brought front and centre.
In Erin Carlon’s book Queen Meryl, which explores the many great performances of Streep, details are shared about the preparation the American actor did for Sophie’s Choice. Streep revealed that she didn’t properly grasp the true spirit of the character until she started learning Polish. She already had considerable experience with other languages, but learning the Eastern European language was a tough task.
“I thought it would be a piece of cake, like picking up Italian or French or something—but it’s not,” Streep admitted. “It’s a lot like Latin because there are seven cases, I think—my teacher will kill me if I don’t get this right—grammar wasn’t my strong point, I can get the accent.”
She continued: “Anyway, because of that, it was real hard to learn. You have to parse every sentence as you speak it, every word changes its ending according to whether it’s the object of a sentence or the subject or the indirect object. It’s really wild.”
Streep moved to the Croatian capital Zagreb, in what was then Yugoslavia, for three weeks as they shot the harrowing concentration camp scenes. However, she was faced with yet another language that she needed to learn, as Pakula was keen to make the movie as realistic as possible. He had originally written the war scenes in English, but at the last minute, he changed the plan and wanted them spoken in both Polish and German.
Worn out, Streep told Pakula: “Get me a German teacher”.
Pakula’s decisions paid off. Streep won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her work in Sophie’s Choice, and the film was ubiquitous at the ceremony. It was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Costume Design, Music, and Original Score.