What’s behind the dark charisma of ‘Son of Saul’ star Geza Rohrig?

When the Hungarian-Jewish poet Geza Rohrig agreed to play the lead role in the Oscar-nominated Holocaust drama “Son of Saul,” he knew he was taking on a daunting challenge.

With very little acting experience, Rohrig, 48, agreed to portray the complex lead in a shoestring production by a director who had never before made a full-length feature.

Two years later, Rohrig’s haunting performance is widely considered to be a decisive element of the film’s success. “Son of Saul” won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in May and the Golden Globe for best foreign film in January. And it is favored to win the same category at the Academy Awards ceremony on Feb. 28 in Los Angeles.

In an interview with JTA last month in Berlin, Rohrig, an orphan who was adopted in childhood by a Jewish family, said he dove into his obsession with the Holocaust and his own tragic family story to find the intensity and sensitivity he needed to get into character.

“The acoustics that informed my portrayal of Saul, they came from inside me,” said Rohrig, a thin man with an intense gaze and raspy voice.

In the film, Rohrig plays Saul Auslander, a childless Sonderkommando charged with the gruesome task of ushering prisoners into the gas chambers and disposing of their bodies afterward. Saul is resigned to his own eventual death until he confronts the body of a boy he never met yet considers his son. He becomes consumed with a passion to bury the boy, repeatedly risking his own life and those of his fellow inmates and rendering hopeless a rebellion they had spent months planning.

To connect to Saul’s character, Rohrig revisited his own family tragedy. Orphaned as a child — his father died when he was 4 and he declined to discuss his mother — Rohrig was placed in a Budapest children’s home, where he lived until his adoption by a Jewish family at age 11.

“My uncle didn’t want me to go to my father’s funeral, which would’ve actually been very helpful for me to do,” Rohrig said. “Staying home when he was being buried meant I couldn’t really grasp his death and it remained unresolved for years. Well, I never experienced a concentration camp, but this movie is basically about someone who desperately wants to bury a loved one. For me it was my father.”

Rohrig first learned of the Holocaust from his adoptive grandfather, an Auschwitz survivor who lost his brother at the death camp. Later, as a teenager studying in Krakow, Poland, some 30 miles from the camp, Rohrig spent hours at Auschwitz.

“I would come there every day in some periods,” Rohrig said. “It felt like I lived there. I don’t think the actual place is holy, but it has divine significance because God is responsible for the people who built it.”

Though he was raised secular, Rohrig became religious at 21 while studying in yeshiva in Jerusalem. Today he lives in New York and is religiously observant, wearing a yarmulke and eschewing work on the Sabbath. “Son of Saul,” which was filmed in one month on a set near Budapest, was not shot on weekends for this reason.

It was a constraint that the director, Laszlo Nemes, had taken into account before offering the part to Rohrig, whom he had met at the home of a mutual friend in New York.

A former kindergarten teacher and the author of six volumes of poetry and one of short stories – all in Hungarian – Rohrig has written about the Holocaust and Auschwitz. But the film does not offer him a chance to showcase his eloquence.

While deeply morbid, “Son of Saul” is not very graphically disturbing. The carnage in and around the gas chambers remains mostly out of focus and serves as a soft background for long shots of Rohrig’s face as he carries out his daily routine. With so little dialogue, Rohrig had to rely on body language and facial expressions to convey Saul’s hopelessness.

To do that, Rohrig plugged into his own deep pessimism about the world today. Though he is happily married to his second wife and a father of four, Rohrig repeatedly spoke of his sense of foreboding over coming global upheavals. When nearly half a million Syrians are slaughtered while the world stands by, Auschwitz is not merely history, Rohrig said.

“We are heading toward chaos,” he said. “These are hard times, war is on the horizon, our Judeo-Christian culture is under threat from rising Islamic extremism, which is clearly going to be the story of this century, with guerrilla warfare in Paris and New York. We are not heading to good times, and I say this as a father.”

Despite the bleak outlook, Rohrig said he was able to draw from happier moments of his troubled biography as well. Asked why Saul, who unemotionally herded countless Jews to their deaths, suddenly becomes so moved by one boy, he thought of his own adoption as a child.

“I think it’s like falling in love,” Rohrig mused. “A couple comes into an orphanage. They think they know what child they want, but then their eyes meet the eyes of another child and it’s too late. Their souls meet and they need to act on the encounter.”

‘Son of Saul’: For Claims Conference, Oscar nominee was a big gamble

Set amid a 1944 prisoner uprising at Auschwitz, “Son of Saul” stood out as a long shot when its producers first applied for funding from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. The film’s director, Laszlo Nemes, had no experience with feature films; its lead actor hadn’t been on a film set in 15 years; and its script included long, silent and out-of-focus shots.

But the Claims Conference, which negotiates restitution for Nazi victims, ultimately decided to help bankroll the film. It’s a gamble that now seems prescient, as “Son of Saul” is favored to win best foreign language film at the Oscars on Feb. 28.

Worldwide ticket sales for the Golden Globe-winning film are north of $2 million, already exceeding the film’s slim $1.6 million budget.

“People all over the world are realizing we’re facing the last generation of Holocaust survivors, so we’re in a race against time to cling to the experiences of the survivors still amongst us,” Greg Schneider, the Claims Conference’s vice president, told JTA.

Since the 1993 release of Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” which won the Oscar for best picture, representations of the Holocaust have emerged as an important genre in cinema in and beyond the U.S. market. Other award-winning productions,  such as “Life is Beautiful” (1997), “The Pianist” (2002), “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) and last year’s “Woman in Gold,” have followed.

In recent years, many filmmakers from Europe have trained their lenses on the same theme, resulting in such critically acclaimed productions as “Phoenix” (Germany, 2014), “Ida” (Poland, 2013), “Suskind” (The Netherlands, 2012) and “Sarah’s Key” (France, 2010).

The Claims Conference, which since 2008 has devoted a small portion of its budget to funding educational Holocaust films, provided about $50,000 of the “Son of Saul” budget. But even that relatively small contribution was subject to “serious internal debate,” Schneider said.

“It was a risk that paid off,” he said.

The Claims Conference receives funding requests for about 50 films a year. One factor that helped clinch the deal with Nemes was the quality of a short Holocaust film, “With a Little Patience,” that he had made back in 2007. Another factor was the director’s meticulous attention to historical accuracy, as demonstrated by the “Son of Saul” script.

While fictional, the plot uses an accurate backdrop in telling the story of Saul Auslander, a member of the Sonderkommando, a group of Jews whom the Germans forced to work in the gas chambers. In the film, an unemotional Auslander is seen herding transport after transport of his brethren to their deaths before becoming unhinged at the sight of a Nazi doctor suffocating a boy of 14 who had somehow survived the poison. Oblivious to the rebellion being planned around him, Auslander abuses the access that his gruesome job affords him in an attempt to bury the teenager.

“Auslander’s story is fictional, the rest is accurate,” Schneider told JTA last week in Berlin, where the Claims Conference organized the film’s premiere in Germany. (The Sonderkommando at Auschwitz did stage a rebellion in October  1944. Separately, two teenagers were murdered after surviving the gas chambers.)

Whereas straightforward filming of an Auschwitz-Birkenau set would have yielded “a pornography of death,” as the lead actor, Geza Rohrig, said, the camera focuses on the living Sonderkommando and scenery, weaving the carnage around them into an out-of-focus but omnipresent background.

Though the Claims Conference provided less than 4 percent of the total production cost of “Son of Saul,” its contribution “came in the final stages of production when we were really lacking money,” “Son of Saul” producer Gabor Sipos said.

Since 2008, the Claims Conference has spent a total of $2.25 million, or an average of $282,000 a year, to fund educational Holocaust films. The organization’s total annual budget has ranged from $700 million to $870 million, with the vast majority going toward improving the quality of life for Holocaust survivors.

Of the dozens of films funded by the Claims Conference, “Son of Saul” is “by far the most successful in terms of return on investment,” Schneider said. It is the first film funded by the organization that has won a Golden Globe or been nominated for an Oscar. Among others that have received funding from the Claims Conference are the award-winning “Numbered” (2012)  and “The Decent One” (2014).

The remainder of the budget for “Son of Saul” came almost entirely from the Hungarian National Film Fund. Agnes Havas, the Hungarian fund’s CEO, told the Budapest Business Journal that the film’s commercial appeal makes it “the most successful project supported by the film fund.” “Son of Saul” is also Hungary’s first Oscars nominee since 1988.

But the funding from Hungary is also exposing “Son of Saul” to criticism by those opposed to the right-wing policies of the country’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, whose government was recently accused of downplaying Hungarian complicity in the Holocaust and relegating all the blame to Germany.

“I wonder if getting money from the Hungarian state is a problem for you, or you just don’t mind,” one critical viewer, who accused the government of anti-Semitism, said at a post-screening Q&A.

In replying, Sipos said the filmmakers were “proud of the film fund,” which they “hope has nothing to do with [the policies of] Hungarian government.”

He noted that while requests for funding “Son of Saul” were “rejected in countries that are seen to be less anti-Semitic,” including France, Germany and Israel, “the Hungarian film fund decided to support us, meaning this film would not have existed if not for their help.”

Shlomo Venezia, who survived being an Auschwitz Sonderkommando, dies

Shlomo Venezia, a Holocaust survivor who wrote about his experiences in an Auschwitz Sonderkommando unit and spent years bearing personal testimony to the Shoah, has died.

Venezia, who was born in Salonika (Thessaloniki), Greece, died Sept. 30 in Rome at the age of 88.

Deported to Auschwitz in 1944, he was one of the few survivors of the notorious Sonderkommando units – teams of prisoners forced to move and cremate the bodies of those killed in the gas chambers. His mother and two sisters were killed in Auschwitz. He wrote about his experiences in a memoir, “Sonderkommando Auschwitz,” published in 2007.

Venezia was very active speaking about the Holocaust at schools, public events and in the media, and he accompanied Italian student groups on study trips to Auschwitz.

His death “leaves a vacuum and great pain,” said Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno.

Nicola Zingaretti, the president of Rome province, said: “It is difficult today, and it has always been difficult, to find the words to thank Shlomo for all that he has given us and all that he has taught us, and it is difficult, maybe impossible, to comprehend the depth of his suffering, his courage and his generosity.”

The Director General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, Irina Bokova, also paid tribute. “Shlomo Venezia was an exceptional and tireless witness of this dark period of history,” she said in a statement. “He dedicated many years of his life telling his story in Italy and throughout Europe to serve as a warning for the future. He influenced a whole generation of young people, teachers and historians, thanks to his deep loyalty to the memory of the deceased. All those who knew him were struck by his modesty and his strength of character,” she said. “His death is a call to intensify efforts for educating and transmitting the history of the Holocaust around the world.”

Theater: The answer isn’t black and white

Scott Jay and Brian Weed, star/producer and director, respectively, of “The Grey Zone,” now playing at the Deaf West Theater, initially had reservations about staging a play about Auschwitz’s Sonderkommando, Jews who cleaned the gas chambers and crematoria in exchange for a few extra months of life.

“We thought, ‘It’s about the Holocaust. Who wants to go and be depressed for two hours?'” Jay said of the Tim Blake Nelson play that later became a movie starring Harvey Keitel and Mira Sorvino.

But Jay and Weed were drawn to the power of the tale, which runs counter to the bittersweet and inspirational Holocaust dramas we have come to expect from Hollywood, including the self-important and religious quality of “Schindler’s List.”

“The Grey Zone” seems much truer to the moral ambiguities of the Shoah; as Weed said, “I didn’t feel I was reading a play about Jews. I felt I was reading a play about humans.”

Its protagonists, ash-covered stewards of the crematorium, speak in the foul-mouthed staccato of David Mamet, interrupting one another, barking out truncated thoughts, cursing like it’s second nature.

It is as if the characters are speaking in code, because they do not want to reveal too much, even in the presence of a mute girl who has miraculously survived the gassing. The abbreviated, desperate pattern to the speech creates a tension in the play, leaving us wondering about the internal demons these men must be hiding.

We can hear those demons or ghosts in Ben Holbrook’s eerie musical score.

Mastered digitally with simulated oboes and violins, the composition produces a bubbling sound that has the effect of making us feel that we are in a sinking submarine, drowning, yet still alive.

The music, which is supposed to represent the ambient noises of a factory, also suggests the rumble of distant tanks approaching to liberate the Jews.

But will those tanks come in time? And will the Sonderkommandos want to live even if they are liberated?

Jay and Weed, who met as actors at A Noise Within, the Glendale repertory theater, believe that there is a contemporary resonance to this play. Not that they are claiming that Americans face a moral conundrum of the level of the Sonderkommandos, but, as Weed said, “We’re stuck in a time that we don’t know if what we’re doing is right.”

“The Grey Zone” plays through Nov. 5 at Deaf West Theater, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hollywood.