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'Son Of Saul' Captures The Holocaust Without The Melodrama

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

To watch the Hungarian movie "Son Of Saul" is to watch the face of actor Geza Rohrig framed by hellish scenes of evil at work. Rohrig is a poet and rabbinical student, and in the movie - this is his first - the camera is nearly always trained on him, often close up. Rohrig's character, Saul, is a Hungarian Jew at Auschwitz.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SON OF SAUL")

SIEGEL: He's been selected for the Sonderkommando, the work crew charged with herding their fellow Jews into the gas chambers and cleaning up after the killing. While Saul dominates the foreground, behind him and around him are the crowds of victims, often out of focus, their words indistinct. They're being stripped naked, herded into gas chambers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SON OF SAUL")

SIEGEL: There's a cacophony of languages - bits of German, Yiddish, Hungarian, French. For me, "Son Of Saul" gets to what the Holocaust was about without flinching, without an overlay of redeeming sentiment. It's about mass murder. It's about death. Geza Rohrig says his friend, the director, Laszlo Nemes, set out to make a film that is not about the fortunate minority who survived the Holocaust but about most of the Jews who encountered it, the ones who perished.

GEZA ROHRIG: Two out of 3 Jews were murdered in Europe during the Holocaust. And only the lucky third is the one who's making it into the Holocaust movies. And, simply, I felt it's dishonest, you know? I think anybody who survived is - any survival is due to a systematic error. The plan was nobody to survive. So we wanted to make a movie about the first, too, the norm, not about the exception, but the norm, which was death.

ROHRIG: Do you think the fact that your character, Saul, dominates the foreground of this movie so much and what's happening behind him is the work of Auschwitz, is what it did - do you think that makes the story more universally acceptable, that we can think of the individual in some other circumstance other than Auschwitz?

ROHRIG: It is. I mean, you know, people call it - and I understand why; this is a Holocaust movie. But we really never say the word Auschwitz. We never clarify the date of the movie. We are what - we wanted to speak about human cruelty. We want to speak about genocide in general, which, I believe, (unintelligible) by the frequent genocides after the Holocaust, you know, in the past few decades, that it's some - it's still very much a permanent possibility. The history did not turn the page. And I think by focusing on one man only and especially on his face - when a person and the world meets, it's always a human face. And it's much easier to identify and put yourself into the shoes of one person, just one other person like you.

SIEGEL: Of course, the face that we're looking at is your face, and we've never seen it before in the movies. I mean, so far, this is your acting career in the movies. Is that right?

ROHRIG: Yeah.

SIEGEL: How did that happen? How did you end up playing a character in your friend's movie never having been in a film before?

ROHRIG: Well, Robert, life is unpredictable. What can I say? This is - I felt totally the right guy to do this. I did not hesitate for one second. I didn't view myself as a risky choice one bit. I think I was ready, willing and able, and I think what Laszlo had in mind is to find somebody who is, by nature and by upbringing of family and socialization, somehow can really intimately relate to this subject matter.

SIEGEL: That's Laszlo Nemes, the film...

ROHRIG: Laszlo Nemes, yeah. He's the filmmaker. He's - this is his first feature.

SIEGEL: I just want to ask you about the sensory experience of watching this movie. As you were acting in this movie, you're - you must have always been a few feet away from the cameraman, who's...

ROHRIG: Yeah, 30 inches, yeah.

SIEGEL: Thirty inches away from you, carrying a 35-millimeter camera.

ROHRIG: Yeah.

SIEGEL: And hence we see you this close up. We hear number of languages going on behind you.

ROHRIG: Yeah.

SIEGEL: And the movie makes no great effort to make sure that we understand relationships between your character and other members of the Sonderkommando. It's a very powerful and disorienting experience to watch "Son Of Saul."

ROHRIG: Yeah. That was the plan - to be extremely physical, almost. Even the first thing we did when we sat down with the coffee after reading the script - is to make a list of what we wanted to avoid - you know, the classic tropes of the genre. And one thing we all listed is that we do not want the viewer to cry because you feel better after crying, and we wanted to leave the viewer with a more lasting impact, more like a punch to the stomach. We didn't want to do some sort of - another flick, another melodramatic edge. So one of the things exactly was this physicality. We wanted the viewer to almost smell the stench, the odor. You know, we wanted really to take and run with me and get the chaos, the frenzy, you know, the place - of the place.

SIEGEL: Well, you succeeded. What can I say? I mean, it's a very unusual experience of watching this movie, and I think it does absorb people into the...

ROHRIG: And that's what I hear. And we really especially wanted to reach the young people, you know? I'm a father of four, and I am very well aware of the lives of younger generations, the virtual, digital reality, so to speak - the Facebook and the iPhone and the rest. And they are less connected or linked to history. And they think - they're, oh, it's boring, and, we all know what happened - the fact. But the Holocaust or any genocide, for that matter, is not about the facts. You can know the facts in a very in-differential way. The idea is somehow to be aware of the significance, the weight that this events carry. That's the idea here.

SIEGEL: Well, Geza Rohrig, thanks a lot for talking with us.

ROHRIG: Thanks for having me, Robert.

SIEGEL: Geza Rohrig, who now lives in New York City, played Saul in the new Hungarian film "Son Of Saul." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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