After watching Géza Röhrig in the anemic rags of a Sonderkommando—the name given to Jewish prisoners forced to work the gas chambers and crematoria at their concentration camps—on screen in last year’s Academy Award-winning Holocaust indie Son of Saul, it’s startling, scandalous even, to see him Italian-suited and pocket-squared in a Manhattan photo studio. “This is a first for me,” he says, referring to the full-scale fashion production whirring around him, makeup artists scurrying, wardrobe stylists steaming.
Röhrig wrestles with the knot of his tie as we slump onto a couch, momentarily removed from the action. The 48-year-old Hungarian teacher, poet, and now, international film star looks tired. His hair, clipped short, has the same graying at the temples that accompanies U.S. Presidents on their way out of office. His soft, sunken eyes—the same eyes that Son of Saul director Lazlo Nemis counted on to blankly record, again and again, the atrocities of a concentration camp—burn like flashlights from his head.
“I had a vocation,” he says slowly, deliberately of the movie role. “I believed in the importance of it, but my life this past year has been lacking routine. I’m ready to turn the page.” As a father—Röhrig has four children, two of whom are twin babies, one and a half years old—and a writer—he is currently working on a multigenerational novel about Hungarian Gypsies—the absence of structure has taken its toll. Rohrig has gone to dozens of countries promoting Son of Saul. He has shaken the hands of survivors, hugged rescuers, and exchanged emails and phone numbers with former Nazis. He has sat on a private panel with the Pope. He has been a flag bearer of sorts for a very real problem: Holocaust survivors are disappearing—as many as 30 in Israel will die today—and soon, the world will be left without witnesses. Their loss makes it incumbent on generations spending their hours online, plugged in, often tuned out, and distant from the lessons of history, to remember.
“This is why Lazlo [Nemis] and I felt it was important to make a movie that had no compromise whatsoever, no easy way out,” Röhrig says of the film, which is filmed almost exclusively in first-person perspective, with the camera trained on Röhrig’s face or the back of his head as he navigates the brutal landscape of Auschwitz. “It couldn’t be entertainment. It really had to tell it as it happened. And of course, we feel lucky, because a lot of great movies don’t make it to where ours did. For a first-time actor and a first-time director to make it all the way to the Oscars, that’s a big deal.”
Röhrig has previously said he had difficulty shedding the role of Saul the Sonderkommando after the movie was wrapped. “At first it was difficult, sure,” he says when prompted, running a palm over the crooked nose he acquired as a boxer in his youth. “But I would say my capacity for joy has actually deepened, not diminished. I can really count my blessings now, because I know in many ways how humans have struggled.”
This summer, when Röhrig, a 16-year resident of New York, isn’t walking near his home in the Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale with his wife and children, he will be writing his novel. “Poetry has been my main focus, my lifeblood,” he says of the eight books he’s published in Hungary. “But [you] accumulate things that are more prosaic as you get older. I got through stuff. I lost things and people. I lost a marriage. There are these things that I can’t poet out of my system, so to speak. I have to prose them out. Because they’re still sitting with me, you know?”
The shoot has ended, and now we have walked outside the studio to a covered terrace where stray afternoon sunlight pokes through the overhead lattice. Röhrig has changed out of his red-carpet-ready suit and into his own T-shirt. He adjusts his baseball cap. “I didn’t think much about clothing at all until I met my beautiful second wife,” he says. “After one of our early dates, she pointed at me and said ‘I do not want to see you in this shirt ever again. It’s baggy, it’s tasteless, and it has to go in the garbage.” He laughs.
When I tell him I’ll include this, he seems pleased. He nods and slips down further into a chaise with a “today-was-fun” bemused look on his face. “Good,” he says. “Not all sad things.”