Geza Rohrig became the overnight sensation of the Cannes Film Festival when his film, Son of Saul, premiered in May last year. I speak to the actor about why the world needs another Holocaust movie which is out this week.
JS: Congratulations on the success of the film which won the Grand Prix at Cannes and is now Hungary’s official entry for the Oscars. I get the feeling, though, these sorts of awards don’t really sit comfortably with you or with the intentions of this quite amazing movie.
GR: Indeed, this is not what I was looking for. I was not seeking stardom or even being an actor. I didn’t even read for the part of Saul initially, but for his friend Abraham. I went to Hungary when called for the audition but then I went back to New York where I have been living, in the Bronx, for 15 years. I’m a father of four, you know, so I need to make some money and I can’t just hang out in Budapest forever. But Laszlo, the director whom I knew a little bit from film school circles a long time ago, called me back and we did a lot more improv. l still had no idea he was testing me for Saul.
JS: Did you have an idea of the form of the film, the aesthetic approach it would take to telling this story, this experience?
GR: The story was formed long before I came along, Lazslo had been working on it already for five years and maybe the script I read was at least the fifth version of it. But
from morning through lunch break and into evening, it was clear this was all-encompassing. It was also clear that me and Laslo and the cameraman were on the same wavelength in that we wanted to avoid the cinematic representations we’ve seen of the Holocaust before – we didn’t want to contribute to what we saw as “Auschwitz porn”. Of course, it’s fine to want that, but how, how to figure out a new language to represent it? So we arrived at a decision not to interpret Auschwitz on to the screen, because nobody really knows what happened there – we knew we had to do it so that people can feel it for themselves.
JS: Some people might find it hard to watch. Of course, that’s how it should be, yet you still require them to stay with your movie, to want to see it, otherwise the whole point of it is diminished.
GR: We didn’t want tears – crying is cathartic and therefore dishonest in this instance. We wanted to deliver a punch to the stomach that stops you breathing. Because there’s no end in the Holocaust. It’s not like liberation brought about a climax or a freedom for anyone – the pain, the effects, flow on now. But there was no arrogance in our approach. Look, we didn’t want to pretend that we suddenly understood it all, or had any great flashes of insight, but we knew we just wanted to, just had to, show it, what it must have been like.
JS: I think audiences will get a new insight though. They will finally comprehend what it felt to be in the head of someone like Saul.
GR: Right. We did think that previous movies had sugar-coated the experience, that even literature had always sought some kind of hope, triumph, redemption, that stories about the Holocaust sought this narrative arc, to make the story palatable for audiences to watch. The question was can you still make a fictional cinema that radical, raw and brutal, that people will also want to watch? But, you know, in the Holocaust, 95 out of 100 people didn’t survive, so it’s a huge lie to make a story about the 5 who did just because that gives an audience hope to cling to.
JS: The camera basically stays fixed on your face, on Saul’s face, the whole way through. We get a sense of the wider, awful picture if we glimpse behind you, or to the side of the frame, or through the incredible sound design which brings the noise of hell into our imaginations.
GR:We could have made a documentary but Claude Lanzmann’s films – Shoah, Sobibor etc – had probably taken that as far as possible in terms of what that format can do. But with a fiction, the audience is always aware of the narrative, the actors, the seats, the screen, so it came down to getting inside the head of this one man. It’s why the camera is so mono-maniacally close, right in his eyes. It was important that this guy was not a hero, not a genius, he was just a regular zombie…
JS: A zombie, did you say?
GR: Yes, a zombie – he’s one of the walking dead. He’s been dehumanised, they all have, but he has this moment that wakes him, that pierces his dead flesh and reminds him of his humanity – he sees what he believes is his son – and that’s up to audiences to decide if it is or isn’t his son, I agree we can never be sure, so it must be taken that it’s his son in the mythological sense, a child that provides an instant of connection and recognition for him.
JS: A zombie movie is an interesting comparison. I felt there are elements of a prison movie in there too. To me, Saul is like a little fish you try to catch in a bowl, darting every which way and having to find a new path because each time he meets a sudden obstacle. It’s a constant, exhausting chase to survive, to not get caught. The portrayal of this man and the impression of the non-stop hell of the camp around him feel terrifyingly real. Had you visited Auschwitz?
GR: Have I visited? Oh Yes. I spent a month there, going every day, from opening ’til closing. I went to Poland as a student in the late 1980s, and the place was still run by Soviets. There were no car parks for buses, no vending machines, no souvenir stores. I was just 20 years old and the place took hold of me, like it entered my spirit. I felt I had to stay. I rented a room in the nearby town and came back every day, just to sit there, in the dark, empty blocks, near the piles of clothes and shoes, until it chewed me up and spat me out. It was December, too, so very cold and often there was nobody but me there and the lights would go out, leaving me in the dark. I had to buy a flashlight.
JS: How did that affect your beliefs, your Jewishness?
GR: It wasn’t that I came out any more or less Jewish, but that I felt compelled to understand what this place was, by feeling it and I did call on that experience in my face in the film. I have children now, teenagers, and I took them to Auschwitz not long ago and I was very disappointed by the commodification of the experience. But I must stress that I am a believer. I pray everyday. I grew up in communist Hungary so I did not practise my religion although I was always aware of it. But after my experiences as a student, I left to wander, to become a rabbi in Yeshivas in Jerusalem and Brooklyn and I have been studying for 15 years now and I have to say that I am not even close to understanding the heart of faith. It isn’t that religion is a closed book – on the contrary, I have been stunned by the welcomes I have received from all the religious communities I have tried to learn with. It is just that it takes a lifetime.
JS: Why is it still relevant to make Holocaust dramas? I mean, yours still manages to feel so new and powerful despite years of this repeated story, but is there a danger we will get tired of the same old story?
GR: I passionately reject that idea but agree that new approaches are needed to telling the story. Mark Twain said “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme” and we are definitely seeing those rhymes today, too much, too everywhere. This could have been a camp in Rwanda or Syria, the sufferer a Tutsi, Kurd, Israeli or Palestinian. The crucial thing is that this is not seen as being for just a Jewish audience or even just about the Jewish community. That would be a terrible mis-interpretation. This is universal, about cruelty and how irresponsible we are to one another. You don’t need any Jewish knowledge to understand that. Trauma is something everyone experiences when one’s own humanity is at stake, and that is the moment of this film and this man.
JS: You are a poet, a punk musician, a rabbi, a teacher and a father. This film will change your life in some way, like it or not. Have you already felt that?
GR: Well, I have an agent now, and have had film offers, so I can’t deny this is a wonderful offshoot of working on this film. But actually, I haven’t been in Hungary for many years and what is wonderful is that old friends, such as school friends who I thought would reject me, have been getting back in contact and reconnecting and that has rekindled my love of Hungary, its language and people and I will never pooh pooh or demonise that nation, whatever happened in the past. And I have made a film that forces it to confront its past. But I love it, it is my country.
JS: I suspect that whatever personal pride or accolade come your way, the film has a larger context for you?
GR: Yes. If the film can spark discussions of religion and ethics, then that is the place of art in the modern world. People are right to go in with prejudices and reservations – these are normal: will I be able to stomach this? Do I want to watch this? Do I really need another Holocaust movie? But they will see that this movie is different to what they think it is, or what they assume it will be, different, even, to whatever they have heard it is. They will all have their own personal interpretation, all of them will see a different version of the film in their head, just as Saul sees a version of the reality in his own head. And that will surely spark discussion. And that is all I want.
This article first appeared in Jewish Renaissance.