The first two decades of Géza Röhrig’s life were quite tempestuous. He was born in Budapest, was orphaned of his father at the age of 4, was sent to live in an orphanage and at the age of 12 was adopted by a Jewish family. As a teen he founded a punk band, for which he was the soloist and lyricist, but its anti-Communist activity led to the cancellation of a number of the group’s performances and led him to jail a number of times. Röhrig never imagined that a single visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp would change his life entirely. He certainly never thought that about 30 years later that visit would lead him to star in a film that would be nominated for an Oscar.
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Géza’s adoptive grandfather was a Holocaust survivor and since the man and the boy were very close, when he went to study in Poland at the age of 19 he promised himself he would visit the memorial site at the Auschwitz camp. “I lived there for a year and a half and that whole time I kept postponing the visit. Apparently I felt that it wasn’t going to be a simple experience,” he relates in an interview in Tel Aviv.
“It was only when I was about to leave Poland that one winter’s day I got up and said to myself that in any case the weather was so bad that it would be best just to get up and get it over with. I arrived at Auschwitz and there was another kind of silence there. Different. I felt at home there, and that feeling hasn’t left me. Then I rented a room in a motel in the nearby town, a 20-minute walk away, and I went back to the camp the next day, and the day after that and so on for an entire month.”
Röhrig was isolated from the world, withdrew into himself, wrote his first book of poetry there and when the month had passed he decided to leave everything and go to Israel. “I decided that I would be circumcised and that I was going to learn Hebrew,” he relates. “I wanted to be as Jewish as possible. After Auschwitz I felt it was the suitable reaction. I lost my faith in people and felt that I had to find something else to believe in. Because I had already lost my father and my grandfather, I wanted to find a father I couldn’t lose. I realized that I was totally ignorant about my religion and wanted to know more about it.”
And indeed Röhrig – who came to Israel now for the local premiere of the Hungarian candidate for an Academy Award – “The Son of Saul” – underwent conversion, lived for a time in Jerusalem and studied Judaism and Hebrew here. At a certain stage, when he was attracted to the Breslav Hasidut, he went to live in Brooklyn “to be close to the Rebbe,” he says.
However, there too the Holocaust did not let go of him. “The Holocaust is in my DNA – it’s not something you forget. I worked at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan and wrote my thesis about humor as a way of resisting the Holocaust, so this subject has always engaged me. For me the Holocaust is no less important, and even more important, than the destruction of the Temple. It has religious significance for me.”
When a few years ago he heard that a Hungarian director he knew was looking for a leading actor for a film that would be about the Holocaust, he became curious. The director, László Nemes, decided to give the leading role to the inexperienced actor and when you watch “Son of Saul” it is hard not to agree that the choice of Röhrig was justified. In the film Röhrig, 47, plays Saul, one of the sonderkommandos at Auschwitz who had to accompany the victims to the gas chambers, remove their bodies from the crematorium, scrub down the gas chambers between one consignment and the next and continue to function despite the horrors all around them.
“Son of Saul” premiered at the last Cannes Film Festival, won wall-to-wall praise there and swept in a number of awards, among them the jury’s Grand Prix and the International Federation of Film Critics prize. Adding to its growing collection of prizes, the film also recently won the Golden Globe for the best foreign language film and at the end of the month it will contend for the Oscar in that category.
Until then, Röhrig is fully engaged in promoting “Son of Saul,” in the belief that the film can teach an important lesson about the Holocaust. “In the past two weeks I’ve been to eight countries. I got here yesterday and tomorrow I am already off to Prague. My timetable is overloaded. You can ask me why I am doing this – after all, I’m not getting a cent for it and I have two babies at home. In Brussels I sat with the president of the European Parliament and millions watched our conversation, the day before that I met the pope and I also talk about the film at high schools. As a matter of principle, I don’t say ‘no’ to anything because I believe that this is an important film to see.”
He says that one of the reasons he was glad to do the film was his sense that the Holocaust, the way he perceives it, had never been seen in a film. “The films that were made until now have not done justice to the Holocaust. They told stories about survivors, about those who lived, but in effect forgot about those who are no longer here to tell their story. The director and I felt that we had to respect the fact that the ones who were murdered were the majority and that there has to be at least one film that tells the story of this silent majority, of their death,” he says.
However, it was clear to the makers of the film that they had to invest a great deal of thought not only in the contents but also in the form. “If you are making a film about something so extreme,” says Röhrig, “you cannot position the camera in the same way and transmit dialogue in the same way. In order to take the viewers to that place, you must have a new language. We chose to make a film without dialogue, without music, without panoramic shots. Our hope was that after ‘Son of Saul” people wouldn’t keep making films about the Holocaust the way they made them in the past, that directors would stop using the Holocaust to exploit it for entertainment purposes. Hollywood has to lay off the Holocaust.”
Röhrig and Nemes attributed great importance to placing the sonderkommando at the center of their film.
“We wanted to talk about the sonderkommando because it is impossible to understand the Nazi crimes in depths if you don’t understand their method of action,” explains Röhrig. “The method was based on the following question: How is it possible to kill the largest number of Jews in such a way that the smallest number of Germans will be involved? The Nazis left the dirty work to the Jews, and this is unforgivable because the result was that those Jews, the sonderkomando, did not have even the minimal right to die with the knowledge that they were innocent. Even that was taken from them. The Nazis aimed a rifle at their forehead and stained their souls by means of the terrible crimes they made them commit.
"Thus the Nazis, whose uniforms remained clean throughout, who never had to touch a single person, could feel that they were just obeying orders, that they themselves were innocent. They distanced themselves from the act itself, they didn’t hear the screams [in the gas chambers] and didn’t have to drag the corpses to the fire. They left all this to the Jews, to the sonderkommando, who did all the dirty work for them.”
Röhrig and Nemes felt they had to rehabilitate the cinematic honor of the sonderkommando people. Only one previous feature film put the sonderkommando at its center – the 2001 American film “Grey Zone” and, says Röhrig angrily, “that film was a disgrace. It’s the very worst film ever made about the Holocaust. It depicted the sonderkommando in a shameful way and showed things that never happened.
“Those people were one of the most unfortunate in the Holocaust,” he says, “alongside those who had medical experiments performed on them. They had to burn their own brothers and sisters! I assume that in the 1960s they would have lynched us for this film, but I believe that now enough time has passed so that at long last we will be able to understand those people. No one has the right to call then ‘collaborators’ unless he himself was in their shoes.
“We wanted to make a film about the sonderkommando because in our view they were put into the core of the Holocaust, the crematorium and the gas chambers, and this is something that has to be shown. The difficulty, of course, is that it’s not possible just to go there because then you make pornography of what happened there. Therefore we decided that in the film the camera would accompany just one person and the rest would be in the background, misty, out of focus, so that the viewers’ imagination would have to work in order to figure out what is happening there. From our perspective, more or less. We give the viewers a keyhole through which they can see just one person and only imagine what is happening beyond him.”