The 31st Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) continued its tradition of honoring the year’s standout performers by presenting one of this year’s Virtuosos awards to Géza Röhrig for his outstanding performance in Son of Saul. Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, the film follows a Hungarian prisoner (Röhrig) working as a member of the Sonderkommando at one of the Auschwitz Crematoriums in 1944, who is forced to burn the corpses of his own people and decides to salvage the body of a boy and find a rabbi to bury it.
While there, Hungarian actor Géza Röhrig talked about how he came to be a part of Son of Saul, forging a new cinematic language for the film, having visited the Auschwitz camp and museum, developing a chemistry with the cinematographer, finding the right emotional balance, the most memorable experience he’s had in connection to the movie, which music icon he’d like to play, and the movie that really stood out for him in 2015. Here are the highlights of what he had to say during the Q&A.
GEZA ROHRIG: No, of course not.
Before Son of Saul, you’d only been in one other production, which was a Hungarian mini-series, 25 years ago. Were you surprised when director László Nemes approached you for this? Had you been talking to him for awhile about acting in this film?
ROHRIG: We’re friends and he sent me the script through email. I read the script and thought, “I have to be a part of this.” I didn’t know yet in what capacity, but I thought the movie was a must-be-made movie. We rehearsed and improvised for weeks and weeks, so I knew that something was in play.
As an audience, we see the horrors of the gas chambers through your face. The camera is on you, much more than it’s on what’s around you. How did László Nemes explain his vision of the film to you?
ROHRIG: We drank countless coffees and talked through nights about how this could be done. There had to be a new cinematic language forged. This was not something you could do the conventional way. We had to find a new angle. This is a place that’s so different from reality that we knew that we couldn’t make a movie about 6 million or 1 million. We wanted to break it down to the eye level of just one individual. We also didn’t want to make a horror movie, be too graphic, or increase the shock value. To his credit, László spent several years with this movie and came up with the idea that there would be one face in the middle of the picture, and all of the background action would be left out of focus and blurry. That way, you can show the unshowable.
What was it like to be on this set?
ROHRIG: I was a university student in Poland, and I was 18 years old when I first visited Auschwitz – the camp and the museum – and I wrote my first collection of poetry about the experience. So to be honest, I was quite intimately familiar with the surroundings. I knew exactly what was what and how things looked, which was helpful. When I was rehearsing and preparing for the role, solitarily in New York, I didn’t have the lines, I didn’t have the make-up, I didn’t have the costume and I didn’t have the set, so it was quite stressful. Once I had all of those outlets, the stress that had accumulated in me was reduced, quite significantly.
How did you work things out with the camera and where it would be, in relation to you?
ROHRIG: It presented a certain challenge, and the takes were very long. Generally, a movie has 200 to 300 cuts. Our movie had 71 cuts, so each take was almost two minutes. So, the way to do it is to develop a chemistry with the DoP. The cinematographer, Mátyás Erdély, was just a great guy. We were basically dancing through the movie. There was about 30 inches between the camera and me. He had it very hard. It’s a super heavy camera and all the weight was on his shoulder. We became good friends and felt what to do, from the get-go.
Because of the situation your character is in, he has to be so stoic and can’t really show his reaction on his face, but the audience needs to see some recognition on your face of what you’re seeing. How difficult was it to find that balance?
ROHRIG: That was exactly the test. These people were emotionally shut down. They were so traumatized that there was no other way to do it. You have so many muscles in your face, in the triangle between your eyes and mouth. Anatomically speaking, you actually have more muscles there than in the rest of your body combined. So, with the tiny muscles around your eyes and lips, you can see every little change on your face. On the one hand, I had to wear this protective mask and be more like a zombie. On the other hand, I had to share the intensity of my inner reality with the viewer. If I’m bored, they are going to be bored, as well. So, that was exactly the challenge. I did a lot of reading of thousands of pages, just to try to get into that state of mind that this sort of life demanded.
What has been the most memorable reaction you’ve gotten, as a result of this movie?
ROHRIG: The most memorable thing was in L.A., where I met the last living member of the Sonderkommando. There’s only one of them who’s alive, and he’s a 93-year-old Greek Jew who did what we showed in the movie. He is still coughing from the ashes, but he never lost his spirit. He’s a smiley man. And he insisted on seeing the movie. I told him, “If you insist to see the movie, I insist you have your doctor with you. This is not an easy movie. Who knows what it’s going to evoke from you.” So, we didn’t go pitch dark. We had a little light on. We didn’t go full volume. We played the movie more quiet. And we told him, “If you want to stop this, at any time, just let us know.” But, he didn’t. When he stood up, after watching the full movie, and hugged me and said, “Guys, you got it right,” that meant the world to me.
If you could direct a sequel to a movie, what movie would you want to direct the sequel of?
ROHRIG: The last Rocky.
What music icon would you want to play in a movie?
ROHRIG: Tom Waits.
You did Son of Saul in Hungarian. If you had to act in a different language, what language would it be?
What is one movie that came out in 2015 that you would recommend because you don’t think enough people have discovered it?
ROHRIG: I saw Rams in Telluride. It’s from Iceland, and it’s a wonderful movie. It has such heart.