In March of this year, we had the opportunity to attend a Film Forum event at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values, for a screening of Son of Saul followed by an interview with the film’s Hungarian lead, Géza Röhrig. Naturally, we set out to find out as much about him as we could before we went.
Orphan, school dropout, punk rock musician, political activist, religious convert, illegal immigrant, poet, teacher, award-winning actor…A man can be said to have led an eventful life having experienced being any one of the above, yet Röhrig has been all of them. Born in Budapest, he spent the first four years of his life with his father(he disclosed in the interview that he’s never been able to confirm if it was his biological father), and moved to an orphanage when the man passed away. A Jewish family adopted him when he was 12, leading to his eventual conversion to an observer and devotee of Judaism. His relationship with his adopted grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, sparked his lifelong interest and study of the Holocaust. Röhrig was kicked out of high school for editing an anti-communist newspaper(Hungary had a communist regime at the time), and then proceeded to form the punk band Huckleberry, interrupted by the police nearly every time they had a concert. Eventually, he went to study in Poland, where he spent time in Auschwitz, forging his faith on the spiritual trip. He revealed that he then moved to and lived illegally in the US for 8 years, earning an MA and becoming a kindergartner teacher. The past number of years have been spent in poetry, and he’s published numerous collections dealing with the Holocaust and Auschwitz. It’s small wonder that although Röhrig has virtually no other screen credits other than from Son of Saul, it’s been said by director László Nemes that “Geza has been born to play this role. All roads led to this.”
The man himself seemed to be from worlds away, wearing attire not so different from what he must have worn while shooting the film. In a relaxed discussion of beginnings, childhood, faith, Judaism, poetry, family, and the Holocaust, he attracted every ounce of attention in the room, despite being incredibly soft-spoken. His calling as a poet became steadily apparent, and he seemed perfectly at ease when verbalizing oases of meditative thought. He spoke the way only one who has been studying a subject for a lifetime could, and his speech, though heavily accented, carried substantial weight. Not a single sentence was given for the purpose of promoting the film, providing a contrasting image from the generic, toothy, Hollywood actor. In fact, it’d be difficult to imagine him speaking partially about the film in any way, so devoted was he to the truth and its perusal. His figure and countenance, integral parts of the movie, had greatly changed since his character transformation for the role, which had made him hollow and lifeless. He had one of those unforgettable faces belonging to another age, worn but compassionate, and brought to life by an expressive pair of eyes. With his charming urbanity, unhurried mannerisms, and unpredictable yet gracious bouts of humor, it was difficult to imagine a person more humble. He spoke about his role in the film unpretentiously while taking nothing for granted, earnestly and explicitly eschewing all credit that he felt was undue in any way.
As remarkable as he was, we managed to hasten ahead following the interview, and squeeze in a couple of questions about his role in the film. Check it out!
We’re really interested in the casting process of the film. Could you talk about that a little bit?
GR: The director didn’t want to have any familiar faces that were associated with other movies, so there was a lot of casting through the newspaper. Not [for] me, but others, They were looking for people from 30 to 40, so really, just from the street. And when it came to the roles that were somewhat bigger, they went to the countryside theaters, places where actors are generally coming(from). So except the doctor, no one’s really a known actor in this movie.
So it was through the newspaper that you came into contact?
GR: No! My story is very different. I’m not an actor at all. He(the director) was studying at NYU, we met, I had a punk band, so he kind of knew I could perform, and he read my books, so he asked me to be in this movie, but not for the lead role. So he started to improvise, doing stuff on video, and kind of slowly but surely, behind my back, he and the casting director started to entertain themselves with the idea about me being Saul, and then they convinced the producers.