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Geza Rohrig finds a difficult truth in ‘Son of Saul’ and horrors of the Holocaust

Actor Geza Rohrig
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

For much of his life, Geza Rohrig has been striving. Striving to find family. To find religion. To find meaning in the horrors of the Holocaust.

So it perhaps makes sense that the character in his new movie, “Son of Saul,” also strives — eyes set, body advancing with purpose as he seeks to carry out a mission in an Auschwitz-like concentration camp.

In director Laszlo Nemes’ act of high-wire verisimilitude, which torques forward without the luxury of pause or the indulgence of hindsight, Rohrig is a Sonderkommando, one of the Jews who helped Nazis herd prisoners into and clear bodies out of the World War II gas chambers.

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His self-assigned task is a proper ritual burial of a single corpse. As we spend the movie following him, the camera almost always over his shoulder, it is not clear why he is so intent on this goal. His motivation could be profound or it could be futile. Or maybe he is simply trying to salvage a shred of humanity.

Saul is a man beset by moral paradox — keeping himself alive depends on the deaths of others — but he has internalized the conflict, has chosen not to telegraph its sad ironies. It is the pain of inscrutability, performance without performing.

“My role as an actor was strange. The only way to survive as a Sonderkommando is not to see what you see or feel what you feel. But if these people shut down their emotional system, what was there to act?” Rohrig said of his part in the movie, which opened Friday in Los Angeles after an acclaimed debut at Cannes and a subsequent spot on the Oscar foreign-language short list. “I was playing a harp, but I couldn’t put my fingers on the strings. All I could do was position it so that if a breeze comes it makes a sound.”

The man holding the instrument contains his own complexity. In a season of actors counterintuitively trumpeting their artistic effacement, of well-known celebrity careers redefined for Oscar-voter consumption, Rohrig is the outsider, the outlier, the man whose life is too rich to have acted in many films.

Rohrig spent much of his early childhood, from the death of his parents when he was 4 to age 11, in a Budapest orphanage. He was then adopted by a Jewish family. He grew close to them and began studying and embracing Judaism, taking on observance, to which he remains devoted.

He also became preoccupied with the Holocaust. His new grandfather lost a brother in the camps, at 11, the same age as Rohrig when he was given a new life. Hungary’s Communist regime at the time said that to mourn the Holocaust was to express Judaism and thus forbidden. It seemed to spur Rohrig further. Religion was rebellion.

“Without parents you realize very early we’re not in charge. We’re not in charge of our time. I learned how vulnerable and fragile we are. I did not calculate long term. I took a carpe diem approach,” said Rohrig, his face at once youthful and wizened.

The real world, the importance of the immediate, made him come to America to be closer to his two children, now teenagers, after he and his first wife divorced and she brought them to New York. It made him study Judaism in Orthodox institutions in Hungary, the U.S. and Israel, and in New York’s more academic-minded Jewish Theological Seminary. It made him begin teaching kindergarten at a Jewish school — to pay the bills as a burgeoning writer, yes, but also to make a different sort of impact.

His emphasis on the present was rewarded, he said, with the birth of twins a year ago. He learned they were on their way when his new wife phoned him with news of her pregnancy, after years of trying, while he was on en route to JFK and the “Son of Saul” set. The orphan who spent years looking for parental figures would soon have two more children on the way.

The importance of the moment also made him put on a yarmulke walking the Cannes red carpet, a big felt number with clips glinting in the afternoon sun, the paparazzi snapping photos, the festival’s famed announcer bellowing names from the film, the tuxedos massing around him.

Rohrig finds some of Hollywood’s ways banal, others amusing. He said he turned down a significant role in a big studio adaptation; it didn’t interest him, and the fact that he was asked so close to the start of production suggested they needed a demographically apt face, not a special set of skills. The part wound up being taken by a well-known international actor. People need to eat. Rohrig says he doesn’t mind the hunger.

“I’m 48 years old. I’m not watching how many likes I get on Facebook. The shallow part of the business doesn’t reach me,” he said. “But if I have a cocktail party and someone is in really nice clothing, I try to see the person who’s in front of me. I have no agenda. Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up in capitalism.”

Long before “Son of Saul,” he lived in Poland for a month to study Auschwitz, walking through the living quarters, the gas chambers, the Nazi offices. He consumed hundreds of books. He began writing about the Holocaust. His first collections of poems — he has published half a dozen, largely in Hungarian — was about camps and survival and disillusionment and faith. Most actors are moved to learn after they take on a part. Rohrig tackled a part because he had been moved to learn.

“Geza has been born to play this role,” Nemes said. “All roads led to this.”

The director met Rohrig on the Upper West side, at the apartment of an elderly Hungarian expat who would invite some of her countrymen over for authentic national food. (Rohrig independently knows Nemes’ father, a filmmaker who was also a wrestler. Hungarian cinema is a small world.)

Nemes reached out to Rohrig, even though Rohrig had only done very little acting, and most of it in his 20’s. He played guitar, but that was about it. Rohrig didn’t want to take the part at first. He thought the phrase Holocaust art was an oxymoron.

“Laszlo, who wasn’t a close friend, said he is going to send me a script for a Holocaust movie. My first instinct was ‘no way.’ A Holocaust movie makes me suspicious. I think it’s a refuge for untalented people who are unable to create drama ex nihilo, so they create something you’re ready to cry about before you enter the theater. But then I saw we were on the same page. Laszlo and the cinematographer and I all were very aware of the dangers to be avoided. This wouldn’t be sentimental. It wouldn’t put the knowledge of history on top of the film. And then I realized I spent so much of my life thinking and feeling about the Shoah that it all fit together.”

On the set the actor almost lived in isolation, Rohrig re-creating one of the types of men he had spent years studying.

There has been an ethical debate about the complicity of the Sonderkommando, but Rohrig dismisses the concern, says that they in some ways faced the most difficult circumstances. He also rejects the idea, raised by some critics, that the movie is too “beautiful.” “How is this beautiful? The key words we used was bleak and unadorned,” he sad. “I really don’t understand how it can be called that. Our intent was to eliminate the distance between the viewer and the screen to make them feel the here and now, to not rely on knowledge and history.”

He sees the subject not as a reason to talk about the movie but the movie as a reason to talk about the subject.

“The significance of Auschwitz, what sets it apart from atrocities in human history, is that it’s an archetype,” Rohrig said. “It was a new brand of killers who killed without passion, unlike murder which almost always had to do with passion.

“One in three Jews were murdered, and a couple of decades later one in three Cambodians were murdered. There’s a connection between them.” He noted ISIS’ actions in Kurdish regions, the ethnic cleansing of the 1990s Balkan war. “We’re not living after Auschwitz. We’re living in the times of Auschwitz.”

Though friendly and engaged, Rohrig’s world is like this. He hasn’t cut himself off from society, and he can smile and laugh, but it is a life of moral seriousness. “I think Geza has always been very solitary,” Nemes said. “He can seem both ordinary and like a prophet. He is almost like a Biblical character.”

Said Rohrig: “I know this will all be gone after the Oscars. So I don’t turn down any invitation. In Hungary or the U.S. No matter the politics. I’ll meet with Jewish groups or with skineads,” Rohrig said. “There’s a growing anxiety now that survivors are passing. Holocaust denial isn’t
the problem. Holocaust ignorance is.

He continued: “Camus was said to be at a party in the 60’s with Elie Wiesel, and he went up to Wiesel and whispered in his ear ‘I envy you for Auschwitz,’” Rohrig said. “People can’t understand that. He envied him? How is that possible? But I love what he said. What he meant was not that he was envying the suffering and the death. He meant that the world we live in is full of lies And Auschwitz was a place where, no matter who you were, a Jew or a Nazi, a prisoner or a guard or a Sondekommando, there were no lies. Everything was just measured by how you reacted. Everything was measured by who you were as a person.”


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