Unknown Hungarian actor and poet Geza Rohrig has found himself catapulted by the Cannes Grand Jury Prize winner, the excoriating, unforgettable “Son of Saul” into the middle of the Oscar race.
“It’s all very nice,” he says modestly,” But I cannot make these things happen.” But they ARE happening, as Sony Pictures Classics begins to propel “Son of Saul” into all categories including Best Picture, not just Best Foreign Film, and Rohrig into Best Actor.
Part of that propulsion is the unaffected, unassuming Rohrig giving interviews on just that topic and “Son of Saul” in general, in New York’s Sony Building, gayly decorated for Christmas. And guarded like Fort Knox.
The security getting into the upper reaches of the Phillip Johnson designed skyscraper was intense. I had to even show my passport, which they photographed!
But at the top of a winding staircase, festooned with evergreen and red and white Christmas balls sat Geza Rohrig, in a large corporate conference room. He was casually dressed in a gray T-shirt and jeans, wearing that flattened black cap, he is most often photographed in these days and a several day growth of actor’s stubble. Looking the absolute scruffy antithesis of the corporate Christmas milieu surrounding him.
He seems stunned but pleased and a little overwhelmed by all the awards talk revolving around him.
“But it is very good for the film. I hope it allows more people see it.”
I point out that Hollywood has a recent history, almost a tradition, of awarding previously unknown foreign actors, who give extraordinary performances, with an Oscar. Marion Cotillard with “La Vie En Rose,” Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything” and Jean Dujardin in “The Artist.” Last year, Marion Cotillard popped up again in Best Actress for a Belgian film in French “One Day, Two Nights.”
Rohrig smiled when I told him this. It was something I hadn’t seen before. He doesn’t smile much in “Son of Saul.”
There’s no doubt about it. Geza Rohrig has one of the great screen faces. His face, ravaged, sullen, dirty, frightening is front and center in the middle of the screen in a very, very tight close-up for almost every shot in the film. Set in Auschwitz itself, the most notorious and horrifying Nazi death camp of all, we only see what is happening in the edges of the screen.
Except for Rohrig’s astoundingly expressive face, which is IN focus, the periphery is out of focus. It’s as if his character, the Sodocommandant Saul is seeing only what it is necessary for him to see, only what he can glancingly observe, as he is made to do the dirtiest of the Nazi’s dirty work.
At one point, a Nazi commandant complains in German, “We are getting 10,000 more tonight!”
Rohrig estimates that 20,000 Jews were killed per day. “And one in three were Hungarian Jews.”
Rohrig is a Jew himself. He describes himself as “Modern Orthodox,” and Laszlo Nemes, the gifted young Hungarian director is Jewish and this is his first film. Nemes claims it took him a very long time to get “Son of Saul” made.
Says Rohrig, “It was very hard to get the money to make this film. People did not want to give money to the story of a Sodocommandant. It was too controversial. They were the lowest of the low. They were Jews who killed Jews. People did not want to see this. They did not want this story to be told. Sodocommants were just as much victims as the other Jews. They were going to be killed, too. But they were lied to, and told them that this is what they would have to do if they wanted to survive. Of course, every four months they then were killed, too.”
Sodocommandants were the burly, muscular Jews who were kidnapped by the Germans, but saved to do the hard, horrifying labor at the concentration camps, herding the thousands into the gas chambers, locking the doors on the victims, and then taking out the “pieces” as the Nazi described the dead bodies, and putting them in the blazing furnaces.They then had to shovel out the ashes of the dead and dump the ashes in the nearby river.
All of this we see Rohrig’s Saul do, doggedly punched, pushed and pulled literally every step of the way.
But of course, it didn’t save them.
“They were liquidated every four months. I think that we see Saul in his second month there. He is in deep trauma. He can’t react. He is like a robot.”
It is to Rohrig’s everlasting credit that Saul Auslander (literally Saul the outsider) paints such an indelible portrait of a Sodocommandant, who is still sentient and who is trying desperately to hold on to his sanity as the world around him becomes more and more insane.
He even believes a dying boy from the gas chambers is his son, and goes on a missiion to save the boy’s dead body and give him a proper Jewish burial. He searches the hundreds of daily, new arrivals to see if one of them might be a rabbi.
“He is in hell,” says Rohrig simply.
Rohrig has had a lifetime fascination with Auschwitz. As a young student of 19, at a Hungarian Arts School, he traveled there to see it and then returned to rent a room near Auschwitz and stayed there for a month.
” I went to Auschwitz every day and stayed there all day long. I had to see it. I had to absorb it. It was the end of my childhood. It was the end of my innocence. I learned just what the world was. I saw a pile of children’s shoes…”his voice trailing off. As if unable to explain the impact of the death camp on him as a young man.
It has stayed with him to this day, and it is probably that profound knowledge and the sensibility that drew director Nemes to him for this demanding role of Saul.
Rohrig gives Nemes all the credit. “It is not me. It is him. It is his vision.”
Rohrig read the script and auditioned and was cast in the part, and what changed as they worked on it and tried to raise the money to shoot it, was the radical placement of the camera.
“It was RIGHT HERE,” he says gesturing,”30 inches away from my face. It was THIS close all the time. It was very heavy, all that equipment.It was always following me.”
Nemes’ camerawork captures every glance, every tiny movement of every muscle in Rohrig’s ravaged face. Sometimes we see it with the back of his head in the shot. Even the back of Rohrig’s head and his hunched hairy shoulders are expressive. And on the back of his dirty clothes is sewn a gigantic yellow Jewish star.
“We have to try to understand how human beings could to this to other human beings. But it is not just the Jews. There are genocides that are happening today. Darfur.Rwanda. It hasn’t changed. I am very pessimistic. There is still evil in the world.”
This was the day of the San Bernardino shootings.
“But it is my job, Laszlo and me, to stand up and tell this story over and over and over again. So people don’t forget. But we wanted to tell it differently. From one person’s perspective. It is one day in his life. We just wanted the audience to see what he sees. It is the great thing Laszlo has done with this film. He wanted to put the viewer THERE.”
And Rohrig and Nemes have succeeded mightily. Just that week it won the New York Film Critics Best First Film and the National Board of Review named it the Best Foreign Film. And Oscar is knocking on their door.
“Well, we will see. I go to L.A. soon.(Rohrig currently lives in the Bronx) They should give something to the cinematographer and the sound, too, ” he says perspicaciously. And I agree. For while, you don’t SEE everything, you HEAR it. The sound design and mixing are incredible on “Son of Saul.”
It’s one of the best films of the year. And one of the best holocaust movies every made, and one of the greatest films of all time.