Interview'To face an empty piece of paper and to finish a poem, there is no more happiness than that for me'

Who is the punk-rock-poet-actor behind the pathos of ‘Son of Saul’?

Nearly 30 years after his first life-changing visit to Auschwitz, Géza Röhrig returns to the crematoria in a ground-breaking Golden Globe-nominated film

Géza Röhrig's stunning performance in 'Son of Saul' has him in the running for a Golden Globe Award on Sunday, January 10, 2015. (courtesy)
Géza Röhrig's stunning performance in 'Son of Saul' has him in the running for a Golden Globe Award on Sunday, January 10, 2015. (courtesy)

Raised in a Hungarian orphanage from age 4, Géza Röhrig was 12 when a Jewish family adopted him. Born with the Hebrew name Rafael Zvi, he spent the next seven years becoming increasingly attached to his new grandfather.

In conversation with The Times of Israel, he recalled how together they attended morning services in the local synagogue. Newspaper in hand, his grandfather read the sports pages, then stood for the mourners’ prayer, kaddish, and the lengthy amidah affirmations, still reading the news.

Soon after his adoption, while playing chess together, Röhrig asked his grandfather about photos he found hidden in a wardrobe. The elder packed away the game, led him to a study, and explained, through tears, that his parents and sister had been killed in Auschwitz. The Russians liberated him from the Budapest Ghetto in January 1945. Because his grandfather never visited Auschwitz to pay respects to the murdered, Röhrig promised he would in his stead. When his grandfather died, his last word was “Géza.”

A young but vocal critic of the regime, Röhrig was repeatedly arrested for publishing articles in an underground anti-Communist newspaper and expelled from high school at 16. With his record, he couldn’t gain admission to any Hungarian university. He learned Poland was slightly more accepting, so he studied Polish in weekly lessons with an academic ex-pat who asked him to translate his favorite Polish poet into Hungarian. After Röhrig gained working Polish language skills, he enrolled at a university in Warsaw. He soon transferred to Krakow, which enthralled Röhrig, a punk rocker, with its vibrants arts scene.

Hungarian Géza Röhrig -- poet, writer, teacher and, most recently, actor. (courtesy)
Hungarian Géza Röhrig — poet, writer, teacher and, most recently, actor. (courtesy)

When Röhrig finally made the 30-minute train trip to nearby Auschwitz, he brought along stones from his grandfather’s fresh grave to place in the crematoria in memory of their executed relatives — following the Jewish tradition of placing them on a tombstone.

Under Communism, the camp was not commercialized as it today.

“It wasn’t a tourist attraction then,” Röhrig told The Times of Israel. “Gravity felt different.”

After one day at the camp, Röhrig couldn’t bring himself to leave. He rented a room nearby and returned every day for a month, sitting silently for hours, meditating. His vigil, he now understands, was for God, the focus of so much of his anger. The experience formed Röhrig’s first of eight books of poetry.

When the month was over, his next steps were clear: He returned to Warsaw, caught a plane to Israel and enrolled in yeshiva to learn the tradition of his ancestors. He had no agenda, just the desire “to know what it means to be Jewish.” Ultimately, he embraced an observant life.

Now, nearly 30 years after that first fateful visit, Röhrig returns to the crematoria in “Son of Saul,” a contender for Best Foreign Film in Sunday’s 73rd annual Golden Globe Awards.

Géza Röhrig in an anguished performance in 'Son of Saul.' (courtesy)
Géza Röhrig in an anguished performance in ‘Son of Saul.’ (courtesy)

Critics have named the film a new sort of Holocaust picture. The winner of a score of accolades, the film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival where it landed the coveted Gran Prix Jury Prize, the François Chalais Prize for dedication to the values of journalism and the International Federation of Film Critics prize. It is short-listed for an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film; the five top contenders will be announced January 14.

Röhrig himself is considered a dark horse for an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his portrayal of an inmate forced to serve as a slave in the crematoria, as a member of the Sonderkommando. It is nothing short of definitive.

Filmed north of Budapest, in the very same wooded environs where he grew up, Röhrig’s largely silent intensity embodies the unspoken oppression of the camp. He keeps his eyes cast downward, following every order as an automaton, a shell of a man who has nearly annihilated his own sense of self in order to remain alive. When he discovers a corpse he believes is his son, his own humanity reawakens.

Geza Rohrig with Holocaust survivor author Elie Wiesel (Michael Barker)
Geza Rohrig with Holocaust survivor author Elie Wiesel (Michael Barker)

Compelled to give the boy a proper burial and kaddish, Saul searches for a rabbi in the chaos of Auschwitz circa October 1944, when the Sonderkommando revolted and blew up a crematorium. Throughout the film, the camera remains focused on Saul and little else. The horrific background remains a blur.

Röhrig, whose previous acting gigs took place 20 years ago in Poland and Hungary, has put his work as a Jewish educator on hold, first to film the picture, and now to promote it. His compelling transition to the screen is documented, in part, on a Facebook fan page run by a Hungarian couple who was drawn to one of his original Hasidic tales. (A translated example is included below.)

With three master degrees behind him — one in Eastern European Literature and one in filmmaking from Budapest and one in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Röhrig’s first book of short stories in currently in translation. His next book of Hungarian poetry is forthcoming. He is also writing his first novel.

In this interview with The Times of Israel, Röhrig, now a married father of four living in Riverdale, New York, shares more about his performance and love of his cultural and spiritual inheritance.

How did you meet the director of “Son of Saul,” László Nemes?

'Son of Saul' director Nemes Jeles László. (Photo by Lenke Szilágyi/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0)
‘Son of Saul’ director Nemes Jeles László. (Photo by Lenke Szilágyi/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

I never met László before 2007. He was studying at NYU in the film school, Tisch. Through mutual friends, we both ended up on a Sunday in Brooklyn for a dinner. And we started to talk, became friends and I showed him around. He was curious about synagogue and religious life. We were talking a lot and then he moved back to Budapest.

We lost touch and then, out of the blue, an email popped up in 2013 saying he was preparing his first feature and would like me to read the script. We had spoken about the Shoah. He knew that I am connected with the subject matter.

I read the script and then emailed him back that “This is an absolutely convincing script and I’m blown away.” I said, “If I could help to see this movie made, I would love that.”

As a writer and educator, how did you end up with the starring role?

He told me he was thinking of me in the No. 2 role of Avraham [who conspires to blow up the crematoria]. I was going to Budapest anyway and we started to rehearse. Behind my back, the casting director and László started to think they wanted me for the lead. I couldn’t guess because we were improvising and I wasn’t playing the role of Saul. At one point, they offered me the role and I was very happy about that.

In addition to your family’s losses in the Shoah, how did losing your only parent as a young boy impact your portrayal of Saul Ausländer?

‘When you don’t have something, that creates a void. It leaves room for things to echo in that room’

To play Saul in this movie, it helps if a person had, so to speak, some losses in his life. It creates certain acoustics. When you don’t have something, that creates a void. It leaves room for things to echo in that room.

Lots of people lost lots of family members in the Shoah and I could certainly relate to that sort of feeling because to make sense at four, that the person closest to you is there and the next day suddenly isn’t there, that is really something that marks you for a lifetime. It leaves your head spinning for years with this sort of [awareness,] a condition, of how fragile life can be.

There is an irreparability to being orphaned. I was adopted at 12. And with all the good intentions of this Jewish family, it is never really your parents.

Performing in a Holocaust-era film is fraught with emotional demands and perhaps, unexpected pay-offs. Has the film facilitated any sense of closure or healing?

Doing whatever Saul could do to bury his son helped me to make peace between my father and me and the experience of letting him go. I feel more peaceful when I think of him since the movie.

It was recently announced that you will receive the Virtuoso Award at the upcoming Santa Barbara International Film Festival. What other opportunities has the film’s success afforded you?

Hungarian Géza Röhrig, the star of 'Son of Saul,' was a devoted fan of 'Rocky' in his youth, and as a boxer acquired his trademark nose. (courtesy)
Hungarian Géza Röhrig, the star of ‘Son of Saul,’ was a devoted fan of ‘Rocky’ in his youth, and as a boxer acquired his trademark nose. (courtesy)

This week, the film received the award for Best Foreign Language Film from the National Board of Review and Sylvester Stallone received an award for Best Supporting Actor in “Creed.” At the ceremony, Stallone was coming back from the bathroom and I just stopped him and said hello and we spoke for about 15 minutes. I saw the movie, “Rocky” probably more than 100 times as a teenager. I was a boxer as a teenager. You can see — my nose is a broken nose. I told him honestly I didn’t care about the other “Rocky” films but the first was totally part of my mythology as a teenager and if nothing else, for that, I’m very grateful… I can’t deny that was pretty cool.

What is your reaction to mounting public interest in your performance?

I view this as a little more sober or stoic way. I don’t want to build up expectations for myself. I think every moment in life is big because we have free will and we are making choices in every moment. Just as we don’t know which mitzvah makes a difference… we all have the moment to live in and we have to feel that moment. If it’s in the limelight, so be it. But if it’s not, it doesn’t make it less important.

‘The joy is not in recognition. The joy is actually creating something’

How has appearing in “Son of Saul” impacted your creativity?

For me to face an empty piece of paper and to finish a poem, there is no more happiness than that for me. That’s not going to change.

The joy is not in recognition. The joy is actually creating something.

What calls you in your work?

If you recall the midrash when the malachim [angelic messengers] are walking up and down the sulam [ladder] where Yaakov is sleeping, the midrash asks why were they walking up and down? I understand up. I understand down. But what is up and down? Why can’t they make up their mind?

The midrash says the reason is because Yaakov’s face was engraved in the heavenly throne and they couldn’t believe someone’s face was the same above and below. There is potentiality and actuality and this was the first time someone’s face was the same up there and down here. He was the same. He was still recognizable.

The human condition is such that everything is written on the face and it is not necessarily what we ought to be, but what we are. Generally speaking, it’s not good to pray for oneself. But the most important thing, if I could have one wish for the rest of my life, it wouldn’t be that it would be easy. It would be, referring back to the midrash, that it would be what it is meant to be. The miracle [in the Yaakov story] was that.

Geza Rohrig in Auschwitz in 'Son of Saul.' (courtesy)
Geza Rohrig in Auschwitz in ‘Son of Saul.’ (courtesy)

What transpired during your first visit to Auschwitz that immediately led you to Israel?

I caught myself praying as if it were something shameful. I found a survivor there: my God. And with my praying, I guess I wanted to nourish him. It was odd because I felt at home there, for the first time. I thought, “I can’t be home in the middle of death. There must be something here that makes me feel at home.” That’s when I realized somebody survived this and that’s my God. And this God deserves to be nourished in Hebrew, which is why I went to Israel.

The Stone: A Hasidic Tale By Géza Röhrig

When the Grujawitzer Rebbe was on his deathbed, his seven-year-old grandson asked him a question: “Grandpa, a boy from the neighborhood asked me in the park if there really is a God who can do anything. Can this God create such a big stone that even He himself cannot lift it up afterwards? Grandpa, what can I answer him?”

“Tell him that God can. And that stone is here now,” said the Grujawitzer, pointing to his own chest.

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