In order to execute the more than 1 million Jews, Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war, German mental patients, and gays who died at Auschwitz alone, the Nazis set up a highly efficient extermination machine. At its heart were the gas chambers, where victims were poisoned with Zyklon B. Their bodies were removed from the chambers, processed, and transported to crematoria, where their remains were incinerated, ground to dust and mixed with ashes. The Nazis carried out the gassings, but the rest was done by the Sonderkommando—groups of young Jewish men forced to do the Nazis’ dirty work or be executed themselves. It is here, in the middle of the gas chamber, where Son of Saul unfolds: Sonderkommando member Saul Auslander recognizes one of the bodies in the gas chamber as his son’s. Son of Saul is rightly being hailed as revolutionary for its groundbreaking mode of presenting the Holocaust: the dead bodies are kept in the background, blurred, so that we can only hear the horror in the terrifying soundscape, or read its impact on Saul’s face, which fills nearly every frame. Less is more, and the effect is devastating. Director Talk speaks with Geza Rohrig, the remarkable man who portrays Saul Auslander, about the filmmakers’ intentions in making the movie. More than an actor, Rohrig is a poet, a Jewish scholar, and a philosopher, all of which he brings to his role as Saul. Son of Saul is the winner of the 2016 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, and nominee for a 2016 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. •Availability: Opens on Friday, December 18 in New York (Lincoln Plaza and Film Forum) and Los Angeles. •Thanks to Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck & Associates, for arranging this interview.•
DT: The members of the Sonderkommando were controversial figures, both during the Holocaust and afterward. As an actor, you had to deal with the moral dilemma of being in the Sonderkommando. How did you personally address this aspect of your role?
GR: The institution of the Sonderkommando shows nothing but to what point a human being can be brought under permanent threat of death. I think judgment has to be suspended when it comes to the Sonderkommando. These people were not voluntary accomplices of the executioners. They were unwilling, but they were lured into a deadly trap. They had no real choice whatsoever apart from committing suicide. They had no way to refuse or to resign the task.
They were inducted right upon arrival at the ramp. The Nazis approached these people wisely right upon arrival, when they were dazed and shattered by this often weeklong or ten-day-long trip in a cattle car with no water, and promised these people a better life. They were not given any sort of advance notice about the task, any sort of job description. The Nazis just asked, Who wants to have a better life? They promised better food, less atrocious conditions. The Sonderkommando members slept on mattresses, they didn’t have to shave their hair, they were in a heated bunker, as opposed to the others. These privileges were the ones that were promised to them, and the Nazis kept their word. Except….the Sonderkommando were better fed for the simple reason that it was exhausting manual labor for them to schlepp the dead bodies. The whole system was predicated on the premise of how can the greatest number of Jews be murdered with the least number of Germans involved. That was the whole idea—to leave the dirty work to the Jews so Jews burned Jews.
The Sonderkommando members had no say in this. The will to live is independent from a person very, very quickly. It’s uncontrollable. Unless you are a saint—unless you are a saint—it’s not fair for anyone to say to you, Why don’t you commit suicide? While you’re clearly participating in the extermination machine, you are not the one who conceived or implemented the Final Solution. You were thrown into this situation. The Sonderkommando members just wanted to survive. So what I’m saying is that morally speaking, with the conception of free and civil society that we are trying to use in 2015, with iPhones in our pockets and without being in their shoes, it’s outrageous to label them this and that. These people were traumatized, these people were the victims, and the burden of guilt should not be shifted to them. It belongs to the perpetrators.
DT: In another interview, you spoke about the loneliness of the Sonderkommando. I was very struck by that, because of all the feelings I would conjure up for them, loneliness is not one of them.
GR: I was answering a question about Saul Auslander, the character I play, who happens to be the protagonist of this movie. There are social people, and there are less social people. Just by the script, Saul Auslander was clearly a lonely guy, and his last name attests to that; it doesn’t just mean “foreigner” or “outsider.” I would in some way translate it poetically as “extraterrestrial.” He is Auslander, he is almost a UFO. And you can see in this movie that while the others are eating together and singing and playing guitar and being much more chatty, he happens to be a lonely man, and a lonely man gets even lonelier as a Sonderkomannado member because Auschwitz is a planet. There is no surrounding world. It gradually disappears. If you are in Auschwitz, that’s all you know about. You’re going to lose your past. You’re going to lose your future. All you’ve got is the minute you find yourself in. Saul did not really have friends; somehow everybody is pissed off with him. He’s jeopardizing the rebellion, Abraham keeps wanting to have conversations but all Sam gives him is one-line responses. Saul’s a lonely man.
DT: In the Hollywood Reporter, your cameraman is quoted as saying, “We tried to hide as much of the information as possible.” He was, of course, referring to the horror of what was physically happening day to day in the gas chambers and the crematoria. Director Laszlo Nemes and cameraman Matyas Erdely kept all of that in the background while focusing on your face, your gestures, your physical presence instead. You worked very closely with them. Knowing what they were doing, what kind of burden did that put on you as an actor?
GR: We dogmatically followed through with that explicit treatment of the horror in a principled way. Throwing it into the viewers’ faces would be counterproductive. It’s too much. We had to reduce the scope. The Holocaust, the enormity of horror, is too much. It can’t be fit into film, and it’s almost unethical to do it. What you have to do is leave it out of focus, you have to keep it blurry, and in that way, the power of suggestion speaks much more to the viewers, making them use his or her imagination, as opposed to spoon-feeding and telling too much in a voyeuristic way. We felt—and that was our general approach—that in making a movie that was trying to interrogate the very nature of the Shoah, the most you can talk about is one man’s experience. Otherwise you’re going to end up with this historical drama full of interpretations and all that. That’s not what we wanted….we thought that was a postwar perspective.
What we wanted to do is to immerse the viewer, to take the viewer as a companion of the protagonist and be in the here and there, so instead of making a film about the Holocaust from the outside, we wanted to shoot a movie from the inside, the here and now. This is one day of one man, the face of one man. To make it…less is more. By focusing [on Geza Rohrig, rather than on the physical reality of the crematoria], we were able to create a visceral experience, something where you can almost smell the stench, the odor, you are right there.
Instead of talking about an abstract Holocaust, we wanted to create an experience that’s really not an emotional experience. We didn’t want the viewer to cry. No one cries at this movie, because crying makes you feel good, especially after. When you’re done with crying, your system is clear, you feel good, probably better than before crying. It’s a good feeling; it’s cathartic. We wanted to deliver a punch to the stomach or the throat. Something that lasts, whose impact lasts longer than just a cry. We wanted to create something that comes up in your dreams. It’s something that doesn’t let you emerge unscarred and safe. Basically what we are saying is that the world cannot become a better place unless the people become better people in it, and I don’t think that’s a possible case to make. I don’t think people become better in history.
DT: Why did the script appeal to you so much?
GR: The honesty of it. I felt the genre is frustratingly fake and false. I think most movies on this subject matter use and abuse the drama of the Holocaust. They run stupid stories of survival and love, and all kind of rescue, and all kinds of stories in front of this background. They throw in a couple of cliches and swastikas, and then they have this entertaining, conventional, melodramatic kitsch at the end. The reason for my disappointment with the genre is that you are making a movie about a state-sponsored, full-scale genocide that attempts to erase an entire race from the face of the earth, in the heart of the European civilization, where practically nobody stands up, Church leaders included. The best humanist ethical traditions and legacies are all out the window, and it’s a free-for-all.
Two Jews out of three are murdered during the Holocaust in Europe. If that is what your subject matter is, then you better not water it down or treat it lightly. All these other movies that I saw talk about the third, the lucky third who made it through, who survived. We wanted to make a movie about the first two, the ones who died. That was the norm. Every survival was due to a systemic error. No one was meant to survive, and if you want this world to heal, if you want a new era underway, then you have to admit what happened and not sugar-coat it, not Disnify it. If you find it too dark, then don’t make a movie about the Holocaust.
But if you are interested in it, then you have to get into that taboo zone, the very center of the hell, that basically defines and shows the full extent of the crime. And that is exactly where the Sonderkommando members worked—the zone right there between the gas chambers and the crematoria. That is basically what the Holocaust is. The rest is stories. This is what it really was. Without this, you’re talking about something else. I felt this movie should have been done by others long ago, but they didn’t, probably because they themselves felt that they didn’t get the right cinematic language, they didn’t get the right angle, the right plot. It took seven years for the director to come up with this. I’m not saying it’s easy, but once I read the script, I was able to fully believe in it, and I felt we all knew that there was something special in birth here. We were very devoted and focused on bringing it alive.
DT: There’s a problematic element to making art about the Holocaust, whether it’s literature, or painting, or cinema, especially when the artist did not experience it directly.
DT: At the same time, the story needs to be told.
DT: So what is our responsibility to the story of the Holocaust, both in terms of not letting it die, but also in terms of respecting the fact that we’re basically telling someone else’s story. I mean, we’re Jewish, but it’s someone else’s story. We weren’t there.
GR: Yes, but it’s tricky, because the Holocaust is a multigenerational, or transgenerational, trauma. It’s phantom pain. I am the third generation, and I feel the pain of a limb that was amputated from my grandfather’s body. I feel the pain, and the pain is real. These kinds of traumas go beyond one generation. Just because I wasn’t there and I did not experience it directly, the enormity of the event is such that I wouldn’t be surprised if one day they would point out that in some genetic way even this trauma is transmitted. [In fact, researchers are beginning to find scientific evidence to support this idea.]
But leaving genetics aside, my grandparents and parents tried to spare me, thinking in a silly way that what you don’t know can’t hurt you. Of course the psychic reality of the parents is being communicated, and children pick it up in a million nonverbal ways. You don’t have to be told what your parents or grandparents have been through. It will somehow trickle down, and you’re going to get it. When I was twelve, I confronted my grandfather and showed him photos that I found in the apartment. They were prewar photos, these brownish, silverish photos. I kind of guessed, but I wanted to hear it from him: Who were these people? I could see right away from his face that on the one hand, he was in deep trouble because he’d consciously decided not to discuss this with us, but I also felt a great liberation and relief that it was out of the closet and he could speak about it and let it go from a deep, deep realm of his personality. So he talked, and he said, “These are my parents, this is my pregnant sister, this is my eleven-year-old younger brother,” and then the whole story came out, bit by bit.
I think there are two statements that are equally true. One is that it’s impossible to do Holocaust art, and the other is that it’s necessary to do Holocaust art. What tips the balance is if you have the right calling, so to speak. If it’s really an urgency, if it’s really coming from the right place, then you have to do it, because it would be a great gift for the Nazis of this world to keep silent and not talk about it. When we did this movie, we were not just making a Holocaust movie. We never thought that the Holocaust itself is a parochial and only a Jewish issue. If you ask me, during the Holocaust Christianity failed its greatest test since its origins. This should be as important to Christians as it is for Jews. What happened is mind-boggling and paralyzing and outrageous and a scandal on so many levels. For a Jew, it’s obviously a challenge to his or her faith: We have a covenant with God, and He certainly could have intervened a bit sooner. He did not, so that’s a struggle in itself. And then for me, as a Hungarian, there was this extremely shameful episode of being an unwanted citizen who is delivered for clear purposes of being liquidated and annihilated. How will that affect my relationship with my country?
This creates a crisis in many ways, and I think that humankind unfortunately tries to sweep this under the rug. Genocide…not just ours, so to speak, but the Cambodian, the Bosnian, the Rwandan, Darfur, you name it…all the genocides, with their alarming frequency since the Second World War, how many of them do we need to understand that this should be a point of departure when we are thinking about modernity? It’s an essential part of the legacy, and somehow people keep trying to hold firm to this illusion of progress. I understand the progress in science, I understand the progress in technology, but I simply can’t see the progress in terms of how we relate to one another. I don’t. And that’s scary, because with that prospect going right into the twenty-first century, I’m extremely pessimistic.
DT: I was very moved by something you said at the New York Film Festival Q&A. You referred to Psalm 28, in which David pleads with God not to be deaf. You said, “It’s true that God did not listen, but did God stop talking?” You then went on to explain that in Auschwitz, God spoke through people who were trying to do the right thing. I believe that at that point, you were articulating the very essence of what Judaism is supposed to be.
GR: Listen, I found my faith in Auschwitz. I went there when I was nineteen years old. I knew about it, I read about it, I heard about it in my family, but I never saw the place. I tried to delay it. I knew it was not going to be a day at the beach, but finally I went there. It was 1987. And I found one survivor in Auschwitz…nobody cared…and that was my God. He was there, and I caught myself praying, as if it was some sort of shameful thing to do. Like, You’re not supposed to pray, don’t you know there is no God, you want to pray here, to who, the one who abides this cruelty? What are you doing? But I just caught myself praying because I felt sorry for God, and I picked God up and I started to nurse God with my prayers. I wanted God, I wanted a God, I wanted my God. I am the kind of man who needs a God, and that was my God.
I thought, If I want a God, a Jew should pray in Hebrew, so I went to Israel right after and sat in yeshiva. I got circumcised, I learned Hebrew, and I felt that I had to nurse this God. And that’s when I found my faith. It’s a very strange thing, that people simplistically try to act like it’s a given: Don’t you know there is no God? How can there be? There was Auschwitz, duh. Are you kidding me? It’s such a simple thing to say, like Astronauts went into space and didn’t find God. It’s silly, OK?
Let me clarify a few things. The Holocaust was a human event in human history done by human actors. God never rounded up anything, not perfectly Aryan German mental patients or Jews or Gypsies or gays. He didn’t do that. The Final Solution is not spelled out in the Torah, God forbid. It was done by us, the human family. So don’t blame the skies and point your finger to God and say, What’s the matter with you? Let’s first take responsibility. We did this. I understand of course that God is responsible in some way, but His responsibility in permitting it does not cancel the responsibility of the actual murderers, because they acted on their own free will.
This is something that I’ve been struggling with, but there is no doubt in my mind that in some awkward, negative way, the Holocaust has a tremendous transcendence to it. If I would understand Him, I would be God. As Jews, we are never fully going to grasp what took place here and why, but I found God, and I couldn’t just leave Him in the camp. I had to take Him with me. That is my personal journey. Others have theirs, but this notion that the experience of the Holocaust substantially altered the loyalty or the relationship between Jews and their God is simply not true. Surveys show that by and large, people who did not believe before the Holocaust did not believe after the Holocaust, and people who believed before the Holocaust, believed after the Holocaust. There is no sea change in this regard.
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