If Géza Röhrig’s trajectory is an anomaly in his native Hungary, it is even more so in Hollywood. The former boxer and punk rocker was teaching Judaic Studies to kindergartners in Brooklyn when an acquaintance offered him the starring role in the Holocaust drama “Son of Saul,” in which Röhrig portrays an Auschwitz crematorium worker. It went on to win the Oscar as the best foreign language film of 2015.
Röhrig’s latest role is in the film “To Dust,” where he portrays a Chasid grieving for his lost wife. The indie dark comedy and buddy film co-stars Matthew Broderick.
Born in Budapest and orphaned as a child, Röhrig was adopted when he was 12. His grandfather was a Holocaust survivor who died when Röhrig was 16. When he memorialized his grandfather in a poem titled “Kaddish,” the piece earned him the first of many publishing credits. Röhrig later adopted his grandfather’s Hebrew name, Rafael Zvi, as his own.
Rohrig, 51, spoke with the Journal by telephone from his home in New York about the intersection of his personal history and his acting.
Jewish Journal: What are some of the influences on your work as a screen actor?
Géza Röhrig: I was a boxer at 18 until someone broke my nose. The punk thing had a bigger effect on my life. It was before the Berlin Wall collapsed. That was a great preparation for acting, to be the lead singer and perform in front of big audiences. My band was called HuckRebelly [sic]. They kicked me out of high school because of it. When the band [broke up], I went on solo, unplugged, just me and the guitar, all the way until I moved to Israel. I lived there for two years.
JJ: Your grandfather’s survival also impacted you.
GR: At 18, I traveled to Auschwitz without a game plan. And I felt, at the end of the first day, I am just not done. I rented a room — not an apartment — nearby. It was snowing very heavily. It was not very touristy, as it later became with the liberation of Poland from the Soviets. Days went by and I felt it did a lot of good for me. It was healing.
JJ: How so?
GR: I felt this was reality. This is what we can do to each other. All the cheap humanism they were teaching in school somehow fell apart. I kept going back. I never ate inside the camp. It would have been inappropriate. I only ate in my room at night. I was not writing poetry and not praying. I was just being.
JJ: How did the Poles respond to your being there every day?
GR: After some time, the authorities viewed me suspiciously. They asked what I was doing. I spoke Polish because I was studying in Warsaw. I explained to them, “I have a connection to this place and if it’s OK, I will stay until I feel like the place lets me go.” And lo and behold, after 20-some days, I felt the time had arrived to leave.
JJ: What prompted that?
GR: There is a story in the Talmud about Choni Hame’agel, Choni the circle drawer. He drew a circle in the [desert] because there was no rain and he gave an ultimatum to HaShem: “I am not coming out unless you bring rain.” It rained but they wanted to excommunicate him because that is not how you talk with God.
I remembered the story and drew a circle in the snow. I really wanted to know my next step. After a while, I felt like I was not alone in the circle. That was a lovely feeling. I started singing. I knew it was my last day. It was a beautiful sort of thing you can’t ever forget. My thinking was, I can’t be more than one, let alone 6 million, but I can stand in the place of one. Because overwhelmingly, it was the religious, the Orthodox, who were murdered.
JJ: When did you realize the role of Shmuel in “To Dust” was right for you?
GR: I read scripts all the time and you always know where they are heading. In this case, you are deep in the script and you still don’t know what is going to happen next. It touches your heart and it has a light touch to it.
JJ: As an observant Jew, what do you enjoy about this film and portraying a Chasid?
GR: This is a lovely film, a first feature, [the director is] a wonderful friend. It brings together dimensions that don’t usually end on up the canvas together: science, religion, death and humor. It’s really funny, cathartic, profound and deep. It doesn’t fit any genre.
JJ: How does the film succeed in exploring grief?
GR: One of the things that helps with the tension and the tragedy is laughing with it if you can. Oftentimes, you don’t feel it is permitted. Shmuel’s friendship with Albert means stepping out of our comfort zones. It is really nothing less than a story of healing. By the end of the movie, you see Shmuel gets through the worst. He is behaving as a father again and he is beyond the madness of grieving.
JJ: What about acting appeals to you?
GR: Cinema is an extremely powerful form. It is a unique vehicle as it brings together every other art: sound, picture, literature, acting. All of this, in good hands, can truly become magic.
Lisa Klug is a freelance journalist and the author of “Cool Jew” and “Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe.”