The Charlie Chaplin of Jewish Death

Géza Röhrig talks about his life-affirming fascination with death, his new film ‘To Dust,’ and why he wore a kippah to press events surrounding his breakout performance in the Oscar-winning ‘Son of Saul’

By Anna Silman|February 7, 2019 12:00 AM


Géza Röhrig is an unlikely movie star—a Hungarian-born poet, JTS graduate, and former kindergarten teacher [1] whose performance in the harrowing 2015 Son of Saul, which followed [2] a sonderkommando in Auschwitz as he sought to provide a proper Jewish burial to a boy who may or may not have been his son, helped that film win an Oscar. “I’m very instinctual. I never do anything without consulting with my guts,” the wiry 51-year-old told me. “It leads me to good places.”

Sharing a tray of tea and pomegranate juice and cookies at his home in Riverdale, New York, a quiet residential Jewish neighborhood in the Northwest Bronx, Röhrig looks like he has just stepped out of a time machine. He wears a navy blue vest over a button-down, with tufts of unruly black hair jutting out from beneath the edges of a newsboy cap. A poet with multiple degrees, he doesn’t speak in Twitter-friendly soundbites. He recalls how he wore a kippah to press junkets during the Son of Saul press tour in the hopes that he could provoke interviewers to ask him how he could believe in God after Auschwitz.

“That’s the only question I was waiting for,” he acknowledged. “I don’t need all these, ‘How did you get the role? What was the experience on set?’ Yeah yeah yeah,” he said, rolling his eyes.

To Dust, opening Feb. 8 [4], is Röhrig’s second major film role. The roles found him, he explained: “This is a very real thing for an actor to say, but in both of these movies, I truly felt like there’s no one else who could do a better job,” he told me. “I know I’m not a trained actor. What helps me develop confidence is exactly this very personal relationship I have to the roles.”

In To Dust, Röhrig plays a Hasidic cantor named Shmuel who is grieving for his recently-deceased wife. Director Shawn Snyder, a first-time filmmaker shooting on a shoestring budget, knew he had to have Röhrig for the role after seeing him in Son of Saul. Snyder describes seeing in him a physicality that was almost Chaplin-esque. “He’s almost like a clown in the highest form of that art form,” he told me, adding, “I must have been the only person who watched Son of Saul wondering if Géza Röhrig could be funny.”

Shmuel is haunted by visions of his wife’s body decomposing, dreaming of the flesh on her toe peeling open like a bloody flower. As the traditional grieving period lapses and people expect him to move on and be a responsible father for his two young boys, he remains frozen, unable to find comfort and closure in the traditional Jewish mourning rituals. “He believes that all these nightmares he’s having are messages from her about things not going right, things being more painful and slow than they should be,” Röhrig said. “So he wants to help and be of service.”

Believing that the faster the body decomposes, the faster the soul is freed, Shmuel shows up at the nearest community college and demands to see a scientist. What he gets instead is a bumbling science teacher (played by Matthew Broderick), whom he convinces to help join him on a quest to help understand what is happening to his wife’s body in its box underground.

Snyder, who made the film partly as a way to grieve the loss of his own mother, describes Son of Saul and To Dust as “photo-negatives” of one another. “Son of Saul is about this man in these insane inhumane conditions insisting on a proper Jewish burial, and To Dust is about a man in relatively comfortable conditions who doesn’t feel that a proper Jewish burial is enough,” he said. Both films are about men on a monomaniacal mission that may not make sense to those around them. Both are specifically Jewish stories about loss and suffering (of course, on very different scales). And both are about seeking closure around death—not just in the spiritual and emotional sense but in the somatic sense.

Of course, one major difference between the two films is that To Dust is often very funny, featuring moments of unlikely slapstick as we watch Broderick and Röhrig chasing, killing, and then burying a pig together to see how fast it decomposes. “The pig was very well behaved, surprisingly,” Röhrig said. “Nether Matthew or I was afraid of the pig. In my childhood I actually participated in lots of killings of pigs, because in the orphanage where I lived, generally around or before Christmas, there was a pig killed. And it was a matter of big competition between the boys of the lucky ones who can hold the leg, where they actually immobilize the pig before the guy killed it.”

When Röhrig was doing press for Son of Saul, many words were expended on the parallels between his autobiography and his art, and To Dust will likely yield the same impulse. I asked if Röhrig minded that his go-to brand had become “films about death.” “No,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s very much me.”

After losing his father at age 4 (his mother, whom he does not like speaking about, wasn’t in the picture), Röhrig was put in an orphanage in Budapest where he lived for eight years before being adopted at 12 by a Jewish family. When Röhrig tells the story of his life, it’s absent any sense of victimization; rather, everything he describes feels infused with a deep sense of meaning and gratitude.

Röhrig grew especially close with his new grandfather, who was a chess player like his father had been. When he was alive, his father had written down all his chess games. Röhrig and his grandfather would replay the games exactly, with his grandpa playing his father’s pieces. The young Röhrig then used them as insight into the kind of person his father was. “I kept asking my grandfather, ‘Was my father aggressive? A sort of an attacking player?’ And my grandfather looked at the games and he saw right away that the games were rarely over 100 moves. And he was like: ‘yes, he wasn’t a careful sort of guy. He really went in and took lots of risks,’” said Röhrig.

One day when he was a teenager, Röhrig found some yellowing old photos in a closet; his grandfather revealed they were photos of relatives who had been killed in Auschwitz.

After rebellious teen years spent in a punk band and writing articles for an anti-communist newspaper, Röhrig went to visit Auschwitz. He spent a month there, staying in a rented apartment nearby and visiting every day, and emerged a new person, unable to return to the life he knew before. After that, he moved to Israel and became religious. “I just knew without any doubt that I have to go to Israel and do the whole thing. What do they say in English? The whole nine yards.” Later he followed his first wife, with whom he has two children (now in their late teens and 20s) to Brooklyn, where he has held a host of gigs; he was, at various points, a theology student, a kindergarten teacher, a poet, and a corpse-washer and shomer (watcher of bodies) at a Jewish funeral home. Recently he had to quit his teaching job because he has been getting too much film work. He lives with his second wife and his two youngest kids, a 4-year-old boy and girl, here in the Bronx.

Talking to Röhrig, these different pieces of his life unfurl in unexpected and surprising ways. For instance, when I asked Röhrig why he chose to prepare bodies, I expected his answer to be somewhat morbid or melancholy. In fact, it was just the opposite. “I find a lot of meaning in death. Death is probably the greatest force to affirm life, and sort of makes me a little more living,” he said. He described the first body he ever prepared, and how when he opened the body bag, blood spilled on his shoe, so he buried his shoes with this stranger. “Death really transcends the boundaries between one person and another,” he said. “If someone dies, a piece of us dies with that person too. And I understand that in this case, this was a complete stranger, but it’s so beautiful that somehow my shoes went with him under the ground.”

Röhrig has been fascinated by nature since he was a little kid, and he views his interest in the human body as a logical extension of that. He saw his first dead body when he was 14 years old, after begging a friend whose father was a surgeon to let him witness an autopsy. “I knew exactly what bile is, what the liver is, what the lung is, but you can talk so much about things. A lung—is it white? Is it yellow? How big is it? I really wanted to know, hands-on.”

‘If your life is in a hard place, you have to go creative. You have to go out of yourself and think that you’re not you.’

He gestured to a tiny makeshift bird feeder on his window, which he had put up in the hope that his own kids would start to take interest in the local fauna. “If you would ask me about different species of fish for example or birds, I would know way more than an average person,” he added. “I love animals. And not just animals, the planets, the physical universe. Half of the books I’m reading are scientific books. I believe that nature is just like the Torah, it’s revelation.” While he said he’s jealous he can’t go off on epic, month-long wilderness odysseys because of his family and film commitments, he does “the next best thing, which is I read the books they write and I take myself there by imagination.”

Despite the hardships he experienced as a child, Röhrig said he was always able to find comfort by looking outside of himself. In the orphanage, he always insisted on sleeping next to the window, even getting in physical fights to stake his claim to that prized bed. “The trees, the birds, the squirrel, a bee, anything out there, I was so excited just to see a little green or a piece of sky or something,” he said. “If your life is in a hard place, you have to go creative. You have to go out of yourself and think that you’re not you—you are him, or her, whatever it takes.”

In order to survive, Röhrig said he developed a sort of empathy that allowed him to absorb the emotions of other people. “And it didn’t have to be a person,” he added. “It could be, like I said, in nature. If it rains, I just knew how happy were the trees. They were dusty, and now new leaves are going to come.”

Contrary to the themes of his films and the on-paper details of his biography, talking to Röhrig is remarkably life-affirming. He’s someone who cherishes his existence, who finds happiness in the smallest things. “Never in my life that I’ve ever thought of suicide, for example,” he said. “I would feel so terrible and disgraceful, ungrateful to my body. To kill this body, that makes me move and lets me hug my wife. And I’m going to turn against my body? I don’t understand that.”

Both Snyder and Röhrig have expressed concerns that some in the Hasidic community might find the film blasphemous. “It is dancing on thin ice,” acknowledged Röhrig, who said he lobbied hard—albeit unsuccessfully—to change the end of the movie, which I won’t spoil here. At the same time, “This is just a personal journey of one guy,” Röhrig said. “We are not here to tell something about the larger community or anything”

This year, he said, he spent three months in Europe filming two new movies. One of the films he can talk about; titled Resistance, it’s about the famous French mime Marcel Marceau (played by Jesse Eisenberg) and his cousin George (played by Röhrig), who ran a little-known operation to bring Jewish children from France to Switzerland during the Nazi occupation. “I was hesitant because generally after Son of Saul, you know, I don’t want to be part of any Holocaust movie. But this is not truly a Holocaust movie, this is more like a Second World War movie,” he said. “And I really truly like Jesse. He’s smart, witty, he has a good Jewish heart.” The second film I’m not allowed to talk about yet, except to say that it’s a one-man show—Röhrig is the only actor in it—and much like Son of Saul and To Dust, it’s a story he relates to on a deeply personal level—so much so that it would be hard to imagine anyone else in the part but him.

***

You can help support Tablet’s unique brand of Jewish journalism. Click here to donate today [5].

Find this story online: https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/film/279918/geza-rohrig-to-dust