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'Son Of Saul' Brings Viewers To The Heart Of The Nazi Death Machine At Auschwitz


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross. "Son Of Saul," the Hungarian film set in the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, won the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It opens in New York and Los Angeles today. Terry interviewed the director and star of the film earlier this year.



Let me say right at the start here, I usually try to avoid Holocaust movies. I've read books about the Holocaust. I've seen feature films and documentaries. And at this point, I don't want to go to a theater to watch such unbearable suffering unless it adds to my understanding of the Holocaust or is an exceptionally well-made film. But I went to see the new film "Son Of Saul," and it is an exceptionally well-made film. And it left me with a better understanding of how Auschwitz-Birkenau operated as an extermination factory and of the Jews who the Nazis forced to be the workers in that factory, Jews who were called Sonderkommandos. Their job was getting fellow Jews into the gas chamber, the corpses into the ovens and then disposing of the ashes. I have two guests to talk about making the film.

Geza Rohrig stars as Saul Auslander, a Hungarian Jew who is a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz. Rohrig was born in 1967, grew up in Budapest and has lived in New York for the past 15 years. He had a few small acting roles years ago, but he's mostly a poet and fiction writer and is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

Laszlo Nemes directed and co-wrote "Son Of Saul." He was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1977, moved to France as a child and has returned to Hungary. "Son Of Saul" is his first feature film. Laszlo Nemes, Geza Rohrig, welcome to FRESH AIR. The opening scene of "Son Of Saul" is very chaotic, and we don't really know what's happening at first, but we soon find out that what's happening is that a whole transport of Jews has just arrived at Auschwitz. They've been taken off - I guess it's a train. And they're in the camp and there's just chaos.

You hear, like, screaming and crying and German commands. And they're basically being told to go into this room, take off their clothes, hang up their clothes on the hooks and go into this large group shower so that they can get clean because there's hot soup waiting for them. And the soup's going to get cold unless they hurry up. And also that they're going to have good work to do because, like, the Germans need good workers and there's interesting jobs. So, like, hurry up and get your shower so we can get moving. And, of course, the shower is the gas chamber.

And it's a really chaotic and also horrifying scene, and you see how they really don't know or they don't know for sure what they're in store for. And we also see the Sonderkommandos, including, you know, the main character Saul, who Geza plays, you know, kind of herding them in and getting their clothes hung up and everything. Can you talk a little bit, Laszlo, about starting the film with that and the sense of kind of chaos that you wanted to create and the lack of understanding, the lack of total comprehension in the Jews who have just been taken to Auschwitz?

LASZLO NEMES: I wanted to convey something of the fact that the camp was a mixture of chaos and organization, something that you cannot really see in movies because movies, usually they talk about how well organized the camps were. But actually the camps were chaotic. They were a mixture of languages and noise and death would be around but you, as a prisoner, you wouldn't know when you would be dead or when you would be alive. And this is something - the lack of predictability that's in the experience of the prisoner is something that has never been, you know, communicated. So I - we wanted to immerse the viewer in the experience of the main character.

GROSS: The film is shown through the eyes of a Sonderkommando. Would you describe who the Sonderkommandos were and the work that they were forced to do?

NEMES: So the Sonderkommandos were a group of prisoners who were actually separated from the rest of the other prisoners - male prisoners who were forced to assist the Nazis in the extermination process. These were the prisoners who had to accompany the deported people to the gas chamber and then take out their corpses and burn the corpses in the ovens at the crematorium and then scatter the ashes. So these were the people who were at the heart of the extermination machine. They were, in exchange, better fed and better clothed, but they knew that they would be liquidated in a few months. And they actually made notes of - secretly - of their everyday lives and their experience and the rebellion also that they were trying to plan and carry out. This rebellion actually took place in October 1944, which is the only armed rebellion in the history of Auschwitz.

GROSS: And your film is, in part, about that rebellion.

NEMES: The film has, yeah, in its core also a rebellion that is being carried out, whereas the main character is trying to bury this boy who he thinks is his son.

GROSS: So much of the film is about the industry of death, the work of getting the people into the ovens, shoveling out their ashes, dumping the ashes in the river. And I know some of the source material comes from journals that the Sonderkommandos kept and buried in the hopes that someone in the future would find them. And some of these journals were found years later. I'd like you to each talk about the experience of reading those and to describe a passage or two that stands out in your mind that helped inform, Laszlo, the writing and directing of the movie or, Geza, your performance in the film.

NEMES: I came upon these writings in France 10 years ago. It was an incredible experience reading those manuscripts, the so-called "Scrolls of Auschwitz." I was transported into the very present of these men who witnessed the extermination firsthand. These texts were put into the ground before the rebellion of the Sonderkommandos. For example, the rabbinical judge - the Dayan - who was a member of the Sonderkommando, his name was Leib Langfus. He was a Polish member of the Sonderkommando. He had a very factual description of their everyday lives and day-by-day - all the new transports that would come.

One day, a group of 300 Czech young boys arrived at the crematorium, and they're still full of life and full of some kind of hope. And - but they - at the same time, they feel that this is the end. And he just describes how, you know, every step of how they had to undress and go to the gas chamber. And the Sonderkommandos cannot talk to them, obviously, because it's absolutely forbidden to talk to the new transports. So it's - these texts are really at the heart of the extermination machine and for that reason, helped me in finding ways to tell a story from within the camp and not some kind of story that's - that belongs to the postwar period of retrospective story.

GROSS: And Geza, how did reading these testimonies affect your performance? These are, like, first-person testimonies.

GEZA ROHRIG: Right, well, there was about 100 Sonderkommando members who were actually - survived the Holocaust, who were liberated. And I think it's important to point out that the Sonderkommando members had a terrible rap, they were despised by the other prisoners. And not only by the other prisoners, but so much so, they had a terrible rap that when the Soviets came to Auschwitz, they were asking around, you know, the Jews, who was a Sonderkommando member? And they shot the person right there. And the Soviets argued that you're worse than the Nazis because you're killing your own brothers and sisters.

So the reason why there are so few accounts from actual surviving Sonderkommando members is because they were very hesitant to tell even to their own family - families, you know, in what capacity were they in the camps. So I relied on - heavily on these "Scrolls Of Auschwitz" and also a book - a 400 pages book called "We Wept Without Tears," which is a work of Gideon Greif, who is a Yad Vashem historian from Israel. And he, in the course of, like, 12 years, conducted this painstakingly detailed interviews with Sonderkommando members - eight of them, there's about 20 alive now about, you know, their daily routine, these 12-hour shifts day and night, what were you doing exactly. One of them, I think Filip Muller, a Czech Jew who miraculously survived five liquidations. He says that there was this consensual rule among them that even though they were schlepping the bodies on the floor, when it came to a child, they carried the child to the ovens in their laps. So that was speaking to me as a father of four.

GROSS: My guests are Geza Rohrig, the star of the new film "Son of Saul," and Laszlo Nemes, the film's director and co-writer. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're talking about the new movie "Son Of Saul" with Laszlo Nemes, the film's director and co-writer, and Geza Rohrig, who stars in the film. He plays a Sonderkommando in the Nazi death camp, Auschwitz. The Sonderkommando was the squad of Jews the Nazis forced to do the work of getting Jews into the gas chambers and cleaning out their remains.

You mentioned how hated the Sonderkommandos were and how ...

NEMES: Yeah.

GROSS: ...The Soviets would even execute them if they found out who had been a Sonderkommando because they had collaborated with the Nazis and, as you put it, helped kill their own. How did you both deal with the moral question that you're making a film about these people who are forced to participate in the extermination of their own people? Now, if they didn't do it they would be killed, but you could argue, better to be killed than to kill your soul while killing others like that. So, you know, I'd love to hear what you both - the process you've gone through of thinking that through.

ROHRIG: I - in full agreement with Primo Levi, I think that the most demonic crime of the Nazis was exactly that - forcing and following, compelling these special squads under the, you know, threat of death to assist in the killing process. And by doing so they deprived them even from the solace of being innocent, to make Cain out of Abel, to shift the burden of guilt onto the victims. And so this is - I think that this is the most unforgivable - the same is true, by the way, how the Nazis used and forced the leaders of the Jewish councils all over in Europe to provide them lists. Any sort of thing like that is basically making the Jews partners in their crime, you know, dragging them down to the rock bottom of their morality, and succeeding in that. So I think we have to suspend judgment. I have utmost respect for the Sonderkommando members who did commit suicide and not - and were not to be linked to, you know, participate in all this. But I would never be so arrogant from an armchair of 2015 to label and blame the Sonderkommando members who had families on the other side of the wall in the camp and they did their best to survive.

GROSS: When they did commit suicide, those who did, what did they do?

ROHRIG: They were sneaking into the gas chambers. And actually, one of them wrote that he was already in the chamber, and there was the women from his village. And the women surrounded him and pushed him out, saying we have to die, you don't. And, you know, this is just not right. Just breathe, just go on because you don't know what tomorrow brings.

NEMES: And you have to bring the message to the future. That's the idea. So the question is whether there's hope that can still exist in the midst of utter loss of humanity and death.

ROHRIG: Terry?


ROHRIG: Can I share you a story real briefly that I think tells more than anything about being a Sonderkommando member?

GROSS: Yes, please.

ROHRIG: OK. So I do not know any of them in person, but I do know one of their son. So there is this man in Westchester, David, whose father was in Auschwitz, but that's all he knew, that his father was in Auschwitz. His father did not like to talk about it. And in his late 80s, he was about to pass and he gave his will in an envelope to his son, David. And after the funeral, in the presence of, you know, the family's lawyer, they opened the envelope. And they learned that his father's will is to be cremated. And not only that, but he wants his ashes to be carried back to Auschwitz and placed in the oven. And that was obviously a shock. David did not tell that his father was a Sonderkommando member.

GROSS: He mentioned that in the will - that he'd been a Sonderkommando.

ROHRIG: He mentioned that in the will, correct. And so basically, by asking David to carry the ashes back to Auschwitz, I think he's making a couple of points. One is that this is the people to whom I belong to, even more than to my family. That's the community I belong to. So that what was eating him, and that's what it must have been like to be a Sonderkommando member. And for, you know, years in and years out, to do this task - which, by the way, just to be a little bit more, like, factual and descriptive, the way it happened is that there was an initial selection of who goes to the gas and who goes to the barracks. And there was a secondary selection when the Nazis came into the barracks. And they lined up the people naked, the males, and they picked the ones that were strong and stocky, and they did not tell them, of course, what's the nature of the job. They just said you're going to get good food. You can have a different life, you know, join us. And so in bit by bit, they learned in the following days what was this all about. It's a complete shock. You know, so these people - I mean, unless the strongest of the strongest, the saints or the heroes, but I - humanly speaking, I don't think these people had really a choice to make. You know, it was just they were thrown into this situation. It was a life-and-death matter, and they just wanted to make sure that they take the next breath not from the gas.

GROSS: One of the central - well, perhaps the central storyline in your movie has to do with, Geza, the character that you play - the Sonderkommando that you play - finding a boy who survived the gas chamber, who barely survived. He's choking; he can barely breathe, and your character would like to save him. But what actually happens is - I won't go into detail. I'll save some of the story for people to find out for themselves in the movie, but he dies pretty quickly. And so Geza, your character wants to at least try to save this boy's soul - at least that's how I interpret it. And so he wants to find a rabbi to say Kaddish for this boy. He doesn't want the boy in the ovens. He doesn't want the boy autopsied by, you know, the Nazi doctors. And his mission becomes to find a rabbi to get somebody to say the prayer for the dead - the Kaddish - and to give this boy a burial. And he's doing it at the expense of doing some things he's supposed to be doing to prepare for the rebellion. But he feels he can't save the living, but perhaps he can save the soul of this one dead boy. And I want to know what you were thinking as the person playing this character when he – yeah.

ROHRIG: I think he's the happiest person in the movie. I think that - and I'm talking about from that moment onward when he, you know, sees and meets the boy. I think that the resistance is taking place, you know, on two different levels in the movie. One is – and it's obviously completely legitimate - is political, biological way of resisting and just to get the hell out of here - and that's fine and that's important. He, I think, is resisting on one level higher than that. I think that he's doing something for someone else. In other words, he's not concerned with the survival of his physicality, his survival, his life. He somehow goes through an experience by seeing this boy, which is obviously a miraculous sign, even though it's historically recorded. It did happen that people survived the gas chambers. But still, he took that as a sign and brought him back to normalcy. And there's very few things that are for sure in life. But I think every religion on Earth would agree that, you know, feeding the hungry or clothing the poor or burying the dead is just the most human thing you can do. And it's about excellence, human things. I mean, animals do not bury, you know? They leave their fellows to decompose. We do bury, and he, just by ignoring the rules of the place - and obviously, this is completely prohibited to, like, schlepping around dead bodies and bury them there - he just disregards the situation, the context and he does the right thing, and that gives him purpose.

DAVIES: Geza Rohrig, who stars in the film "Son Of Saul" and director Laszlo Nemes, speaking with Terry Gross. After a break, we'll hear how their own families were affected by the Holocaust and some stories they heard as children. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're listening to Terry's interview about the film "Son Of Saul," which is set in the Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Terry spoke with Laszlo Nemes, the film's director and co-writer, and Geza Rohrig, who stars as a member of the Sonderkommand, the squad of Jews the Nazis forced to do the work of getting their fellow Jews into the gas chambers and cleaning out their remains. "Son Of Saul" won the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival and opens in New York and Los Angeles today.


GROSS: I want to quote something you said, Laszlo, about why you cast Geza in the leading role. You said, he's at once old and young, handsome and ugly, ordinary and remarkable, deep and impassive, quick-witted and slow.


GROSS: Geza, what's your reaction to that quote?

ROHRIG: I agree with half of it.


GROSS: That's perfect (laughter). So the film is on your face the whole time. So Laszlo, why did you want to shoot it that way, so that we're almost always seeing Geza's face? And sometimes the action's happening in back of him, and sometimes it's happening in front of him, but we're almost always seeing him.

NEMES: We wanted to do a portrait of a man inside a concentration camp and not show more and tell more and describe the entire camp. We wanted to really take the measure of one man because seeing one person gives the measure and the reference so that the viewer can really feel - not see, but feel - something of the enormity of the horrors of the concentration camp.

GROSS: Geza, how did you prepare for having the camera on your face for so long? I mean, actors try not to telegraph emotion through using a lot of facial expressions. Your character is trying to keep his own soul alive by saving the soul of someone else, but he feels that they're all dead anyways, that their death is just inevitable and that they've already been killed in some ways, even though they're still alive. How do you get that to register on your face without overly demonstrating what you're feeling?

ROHRIG: I was meditating a whole lot of, how on Earth were these people able to do this? You know, just how? What's - how deep you go down to become, like, a zombie. You have to really turn off your humanity, your empathy and just have that little pilot flame, you know, that spark because that was exactly the intention. I think that, on the one hand, the so-called Holocaust was very barbaric, and yet, it was very sophisticated, if you think about it psychologically, especially. In order to destroy God's image in us, it's not enough to transform a man into a walking corpse. In order to destroy God's image in us, you have to undo his humanity. And humanity, I think, is located in our will to resist evil, and that's exactly what they targeted in Saul. And once he became this robotic monster who just doesn't see what's in front of him and he doesn't hear what's, you know, right around his surroundings. He's just going on with his duty. How do you arrive to that state of mind? I was thinking of that during running, during eating, during sleeping. And I don't - I didn't know. There's no formula or something I can, you know, share with you, like, how. But one thing I can tell you is that I did my best to stay in 1944. I was not socializing, having coffees with people at breaks. I tried to really focus. And I think if it worked, it's really due to Laszlo and the team. I mean, we were all working on the same movie.

GROSS: Laszlo, you cast Geza in the leading role, and he had to be good in this in order for the film to work. And fortunately, he's quite good, but he doesn't have a lot of acting experience. Why in the world would you cast someone - it worked out for the best (laughter) - but why in the world would you cast somebody who didn't have much experience…

NEMES: Right.

GROSS: …When so much depends on their ability to be able to hold the camera?

NEMES: Yeah, from the outside, it seems a little reckless to, you know, for a first project, first film, making a film on the Holocaust having, you know, an actor who is - you know, who hasn't acted for years. And, you know, being just a first-timer, it, you know, supposes so many problems and traps along the way, especially with this kind of risky, you know, strategy that we had to portray the main character. So I think there are a lot of things that were a little bit, you know, crazy, I guess. We were a little bit unconscious of the dangers, but at the same time, we were very conscious of, you know, the morality that we were, you know, dealing with. And we tried to respect, you know, the subject and the dead, you know, that we were talking about - and also the living. And I think that I needed someone for this part who was already Saul, the main character. He - I needed someone who, when, you know, the audition starts, doesn't have to perform and when the shoot starts doesn't have to, you know, do something very specific but actually has in himself already all of the things that the main character has.

ROHRIG: My involvement with this subject matter did not start with the movie. I was 46 when I was playing this role, and I felt, even just by reading the script, that - that, like, my whole life, to be honest, was, like, just one big preparation for this role. And what I mean by that is, you know, I think I have some idea what a father is, losing my own father at 4. And then I went to Warsaw and learned Polish and lived in Poland. And when I was there, you know, I was 19 at the time, so the camp, Auschwitz, near Krakow, was still under the care of the Soviets. And I went there on a December day, and what it meant to be just a one-day visit ended up to be, like, a month. And I actually rented a room in Oswiecim, which is the current name of Auschwitz in Polish. And I went there every single day, from the opening to the evening. I wrote my first poem book singularly about Auschwitz. And - and so, you know - and then I got to be a father, thank God, for four beautiful children. And of course, my grandfather, who was liberated from the Budapest ghetto, so I felt like a lot of aspects of my personal story came into fruition in this role.

GROSS: My guests are Geza Rohrig, the star of the new film, "Son Of Saul," and Laszlo Nemes, the film's director and co-writer. We'll take more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're talking about the new movie "Son Of Saul" with Laszlo Nemes, the film's director and co-writer, and Geza Rohrig who stars in the film. He plays a Sonderkommando in the Nazi death camp Auschwitz. The Sonderkommando was the squad of Jews the Nazis forced to do the work of getting fellow Jews into the gas chambers and then cleaning out their remains. Laszlo, how was your family affected by the Holocaust?

NEMES: Well, I think I don't have real family because of the Holocaust. I have a very small family, and actually, there's a sort of shadow family in, you know, stuck in 1944. And this shadow family is haunting us, you know, or accompanies us. I can feel a presence, you know? And I think I'm from a generation that didn't have a really direct access to this period, but at the same time, things or stories were transmitted. And my mother, at the time, you know, when I was really little, like, around 5 or 6, told me about how their - her grandparents were deported and killed in Auschwitz and told me about all the stories that she has heard. So actually, I think nobody really spared me, you know, in this process. And I was very aware of the destruction that we are carrying in ourselves. Especially Jews from Eastern Europe really have this feeling, I think, of this destruction is still present very much so.

GROSS: Were there many Jews left in Hungary when you were growing up?

ROHRIG: Numerically, I mean, this is the largest Jewish community on the map between the French and the Russian unlike in Warsaw, Vienna, Prague, there is about hundred thousand Jews in Budapest, but they are very assimilated. The rate of intermarriage is just like about in America, 50 percent. So, yes, it's a large community.

NEMES: At the same time, I think it's a very low-key presence, I think. And also because of pressure - of pressure from society to remain low-key and low-profile.

GROSS: How frightening was it to hear stories about extermination and the extermination of your own family when you were 5? I mean, so many adults don't want to expose their children to, like, a violent movie. But then other children grow up in actual violence, and there's no protecting them. Your parents shared with you the truth about the violence that had preceded you and that had taken so many lives, including lives of your family.

NEMES: Yeah, I think it was very, very frightening. But at the same time, I preferred to to know than to be spared and not - and protected because I think I wouldn't have been prepared for this world without knowing because also this - you know, this world is very much affected by what happened during the Second World War. And this world has still not - has not come to terms and Europe has not come to terms and Hungary hasn't come to terms. So I think it's - it was a painful process, but at the same time necessary.

ROHRIG: Well, I can say that that made religion very attractive to me because I just hate and hated always any sort of totalitarian system. And so when I was persecuted by the comrades, that was just very attractive to me. And later on, of course, I learned, sadly, that a large section of the religious establishment during the Communists were informers. And they collaborated with the system. And so it wasn't enough to be a priest to be, like, necessarily in the opposition of the regime. But I remember that. And kind of by inclination, I'm somewhat a purist, and that's why this whole charge of collaboration for the Sonderkommando members, I felt it in a very personal way because in high school, you know, growing up in a one-party system, you know, you had to make choices. And every choice that you made in this regard had really important consequences in terms of being accepted in university. Part of the reason why I ended up in Poland for university is because I wasn't willing to become a member of the Youth Communist Party, which was basically practically obligatory. I mean, my whole high school class one day joined the party and I - in other words, yes, I think it is a very, you know, curious turn of events that the Jews basically ended up from one totalitarian system, Nazi Germany or the Nazis occupying Hungary, and basically were thrown into the other.

GROSS: And so for a while, embracing Judaism, embracing religion, was a way of defining - defying communism, but, you know, all religions have their own authority structure, too. Did you rebel against that structure?

ROHRIG: Big time - that's why I didn't - I don't think - I was pretty close on the track to become a rabbi, and that's why I decided not to because I felt...

GROSS: Right, yeah, yeah.

ROHRIG: I felt that individual autonomy overrides any sort of group membership. And I didn't feel like I would be able, honestly, to represent any sort of institution. I just - I didn't - that I couldn't do.

GROSS: So...

ROHRIG: Or movement, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. So do you feel like you've left the Holocaust now? Do you feel like you can stop obsessing about it now that the film is over 'cause it's a very bleak place to have lived for so long while you were making the movie? I'm not trying to compare your suffering making the movie to what people...

ROHRIG: No, of course.

GROSS: ...Who actually were in the camp suffered. You know, I understand there's a difference. But you voluntarily immersed yourself in this for a long time, and now outside of doing interviews about it, you're on the other end, like, you've come out of that tunnel. So are you feeling a sense of relief? And what's next for each of you?

NEMES: Well, I thought while making the film that I would understand more about the Holocaust. But I think I - maybe I understood more factually but I never really understood. But it's still, I think, part of me and it's almost a genetic thing, you know? You cannot get rid of your genes. I guess these are - the Holocaust is now in our genes. Geza?

ROHRIG: I don't think I plan to leave the topic behind, and it's not because I'm obsessed in a way, like, it would be called fairly, like, pathological for me. I know I'm for life and - but at the same time, I mean, you know, one-third of the Jewry was purged, murdered. And pretty soon after, 1 of every 3 Cambodian was murdered. And then we got into Darfur, Rwanda and ISIS, and it's just - look around. Again, this is - this set us - it's a pattern that is going on. And I'm not - what I'm obsessed with is not the Holocaust per se. It's that the naked, shameless cruelty that got manifested in 1944-5 – it's just still among us. That's what bothers me the most. And, you know, governments, they condemn these kind of actions, but so what? They still take place as we speak. And so it really became part of the legacy of modernity. And we were - weren't we all told, Terry, that, you know, this kind of barbarism belongs to the past? You know, that the hordes of Genghis Khan and all that and it eclipsed by the rationality of the Enlightenment and - that's what I grew up with. And once it kind of hit me in the face, I would not let myself to pass and close the book on the Holocaust because I think it would be escapism. I think to keep my sense of reality real and clear and valid, I just can't overlook it.

GROSS: I want to thank you both so much for talking with us, and thank you for making this movie.

NEMES: Thank you very much.

ROHRIG: Thanks for having us.

DAVIES: Geza Rohrig stars in "Son Of Saul." Laszlo Nemes directed and co-wrote the film. It opens in Los Angeles today. Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker shares his 10-best list for 2015. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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