At last Sunday’s Oscars, on a night when Spotlight upset the odds to win Best Picture, another film’s victory was a foregone conclusion: in the best Foreign Language Film category, the triumph of László Nemes’ haunting Holocaust drama Son of Saul had seemed inevitable ever since last May, when it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, winning the Grand Prix du Jury.
But while the grave subject of the film may make it archetypal awards season fare, it would be wrong to dismiss Nemes’ debut as Oscar bait.
Unlike many Holocaust dramas, it is not merely reverential, but a shocking tour-de-force, fantastically shot on 35mm by Mátyás Erdély, whose camera barely strays from the face of Géza Röhrig, delivering a mesmerising, near wordless turn as Saul, a member of the Sonderkommando, the group of mostly Jewish prisoners who assisted with the Final Solution.
Nemes delivers one of the most realistic depictions of a concentration camp ever committed to celluloid; as the audience is given glimpses of the horrors going on as Saul goes about his day, the industrial sound of machines chugging away provides a foreboding soundtrack to the horror. Life is Beautiful, this is not.
It is all the more powerful for focusing on one of the least talked about, but most horrific aspects of the camps.
The Sonderkommando lead their fellow inmates to the gas chambers, taking jewellery from the corpses and burning the bodies.
On the day we meet Saul Ausländer, he witnesses a boy being killed and his moral compass points him to confront the authorities, not with guns, but a small act of defiance.
Saul decides that he must give the dead boy a traditional Jewish burial, where the corpse is watched over by a shomer, or watchman, before the body is quickly buried in the ground to the recital of scriptures and psalms, and the ceremony is finished off with a reading of the Kaddish prayer, conducted by a Rabbi.
This is a story about trying to do the right thing and following your conscience, no matter what the circumstances.
Röhrig is a non-professional actor, and Saul was a role he was uniquely qualified for: since 2001, he has been a shomer at New York’s Plaza Jewish Community Chapel.
Nemes met him on a trip to America, at the apartment of a mutual friend. “I felt that it was destiny that this movie fell into my hands,” says Röhrig. “A professional actor cannot afford to give back a role, because he is building a career. I am not a professional actor. But, if I knew someone else, who in my mind could do a better job as Saul, I would have stepped back. I wasn’t worried about letting the director down. I actually felt, that it’s me.”
Indeed, Röhrig was initially offered a role as a friend of Saul. Deciding the part was not for him, he quit the production, only to be called back again after two weeks by the director, when they couldn’t agree a fee with the original actor cast for the part.
In this period, Röhrig read Gid’on Graif’s book, We Wept Without Tears: Testimonies From the Jewish Sonderkommando from Auschwitz, first published in Hebrew in 1999. “I kind of learnt it by heart,” he says.
Upon Röhrig’s return to the Hungarian set from New York, he was asked to do some improvisation. “They said tell me a day of yours, your routine. I described a day of mine, a 12 hour shift from 6am, all of a sudden I noticed that everyone was crying, that afternoon, they offered me the role. They kind of knew – I made a living with this subject matter.”
The shoot was a tough one for Röhrig, but toughest of all for the extras, as he reveals to me. “Oftentimes, we worked over time, the people who were naked and playing the corpses, most of them were homeless,” he says.
“There were hundreds of homeless, it was August, the sun was coming down, it was as hot as it can be, there were plenty of mosquitoes and these people have to lie on each other motionless, for a dollar a day. Nothing.”
Films to watch in 2016
Films to watch in 2016
1/30 Hail, Caesar - 5 February
The Coen brothers' latest film might be their most ambitious yet. Telling the story of a Hollywood fixer struggling to keep A-listers in line, it has a movie within a movie, an amazing cast, and, judging by the first trailer, some luxurious visuals
2/30 Deadpool - 12 February
Comic book superhero movies have been getting slowly more self-referential and self-parodic lately, and Deadpool looks to be taking itself even less seriously than Guardians of the Galaxy or Ant-Man. It looks as though fans will finally be getting the comic book-faithful, foul-mouthed version of the character they wanted, but it remains to be seen whether Deadpool will actually be funny, or just descend into toilet humour
3/30 Zoolander No. 2 - 12 February
Zoolander's return was derailed somewhat by backlash over a trans/gender fluid character played by Benedict Cumberbatch. The long-awaited sequel will no doubt do well at the box office, but I'm not sure if the fashion industry is as fertile for satire now as it was in 2001, and the trailer relies too heavily on honouring old gags rather than creating new ones
4/30 Knight of Cups - 4 March
A new film from Terrence Malick should have been a huge cause for celebration, but Knight of Cups has been swimming in post-Cannes purgatory for months now. In March it will finally get a theatrical release. Starring Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman, it sees a man return home from New York and get sucked into the hollow hedonism of LA, fighting to extricate himself from it
5/30 Whiskey Tango Foxtrot - 4 March
Based on journalist Kim Barker’s 2011 memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, this dark comedy sees Tina Fey play a foreign correspondent reporting in the Middle East during Operation Enduring Freedom, where she develops a weird relationship with a fellow journalist played by Martin Freeman
6/30 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice - 18 March
The wind seems to have gone out of the sails of the Man of Steel series in spite of the addition of a new Batman, and there's a more palpable anticipation for Suicide Squad (which arrives later in the year)
7/30 Everybody Wants Some - 15 April
Coming off the back of multi-Oscar winner Boyhood, this Richard Linklater film looks a lot like Dazed and Confused if it was set in the 80s, albeit pitched more towards comedy
8/30 The Jungle Book - 15 April
Disney is trampling on its own hallowed ground with this live action remake. Elf and Iron Man director Jon Favreau is a fairly safe pair of hands though, and Idris Elba, Ben Kingsley, Scarlett Johansson, Lupita Nyong'o, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Esposito and Bill Murray are all on board
9/30 Money Monster - 13 May
'Financial TV personality Lee Gates, who offers up stock advice on his hit show "Money Monster," is held hostage by a viewer, Kyle Budwell, who lost all of his money following a bad tip from Lee during his show'
10/30 Snowden - 13 May
Platoon director Oliver Stone takes on a very important and timely story. But can he make it entertaining the way The Big Short did with the financial crisis?
11/30 X-Men Apocalypse - 27 May
2016 will see a ninth X-Men film. Ninth. Every cast member you would expect will be back to collect their paychecks, which might require a crane
12/30 Finding Dory - 17 June
The Finding Nemo sequel will focus on Ellen DeGeneres' forgetful blue tang fish. It's expected to have an anti-SeaWorld message, which should make it strike a chord with parents as well as children
13/30 Independence Day: Resurgence - 24 June
Will Smith isn't in it. Moving on
14/30 The BFG - 1 July
There's still a lot of love for Roald Dahl's stories, and this one is being adapted by none other than Steven Spielberg. There hasn't been a huge amount of buzz around it but it's early days, and Mark Rylance is an interesting casting for the titular Big Friendly Giant
15/30 La La Land - 15 July
There's a lot of expectation on director Damien Chazelle's shoulders following the success of Whiplash, one of the smallest films ever to have been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. La La Land will certainly be different, a musical comedy-drama about a young pianist and an actor played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone respectively
16/30 Ghostbusters - 15 July
This is something of a question mark. On one hand, it's landed a cast of incredibly funny actresses, but on the other, another reboot? Really? There's also thought to be a very meta all-male version in the works from the creators of Jump Street, set in the same universe as Men In Black no less
17/30 Star Trek Beyond - 22 July
If you thought Abrams' Star Trek films were bad, feast your eyes on the trailer for the next one from the director of the Fast & Furious franchise. Expect major face-palming from Trekkies in July. Hopefully the new TV show will offer something a bit less action-orientated and a bit more cerebral
18/30 Untitled fifth Bourne film - 29 July
The Bourne series completely went off the boil with Jeremy Renner as its lead, but now both Matt Damon and original director Paul Greengrass are back to steady the ship. This might well be Jason Bourne's last outing, so I hope they send him off in style
19/30 Suicide Squad - 5 August
Harley Quinn was one of the most popular Halloween costumes this year, despite the holiday falling months before the release of the film she's in. That says a lot about the hype over this comic book adaptation, which revels in the villains rather than the heroes for once and sees Jared Leto step into Heath Ledger's size 58 boots as the new Joker
20/30 Sully - 9 September
Friendly-looking dad named Chesley Sullenberger who saves a plane load of people? Tom Hanks is your guy. Clint Eastwood will direct this biopic, about an airline captain who was hailed as a national hero in the US after successfully executing an emergency water landing on the Hudson River off Manhattan
21/30 Bridget Jones’s Baby - 16 September
It's 2015 and Bridget is now pouring her soul into an iPad rather than a diary. This sequel might perfectly skewer the frustration of growing up in an increasingly youth-orientated world, or it might just serve to tarnish the originals like with Sex and the City 2
22/30 The Magnificent Seven - 23 September
I'm not convinced there's the demand for Westerns that Hollywood seems to think there is. We'll find out in September with Antoine Fuqua's remake of 1960's The Magnificent Seven. Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke are among the gang
23/30 Masterminds - 30 September
Based on the 1997 Loomis Fargo Robbery in North Carolina, this comedy comes from the man behind Napoleon Dynamite. Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis, Kristen Wiig and Jason Sudeikis form a strong cast, but there are no trailers to go on yet
24/30 The Girl on the Train - 7 October
That book everyone was reading on the commute inevitably makes it cinemas in October, with Emily Blunt playing Rachel Watson, an alcoholic whose husband left her for his mistress, and who witnesses a murder and starts to realize that she may have been involved in the crime
25/30 Doctor Strange - 4 November
Doctor Strange might not have been the most obvious character to take to the big screen, but by this point Marvel could make $1billion at the box office from a comic an exec once scrawled on a piece of toilet paper
26/30 Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - 18 November
J.K. Rowling makes her screenwriting debut adapting her own book here, with a film that takes place in the Harry Potter universe but is well removed from Hogwarts
27/30 Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - 16 December
Disney is releasing a Star Wars movie every year between now and 2020. This first standalone 'anthology' film centres on a Death Star heist, but may prove to just be filler while Star Wars 8 is in production
28/30 Passengers - 21 December
'A spacecraft traveling to a distant colony planet and transporting thousands of people has a malfunction in one of its sleep chambers. As a result, a single passenger is awakened 60 years early. Faced with the prospect of growing old and dying alone, he eventually decides to wake up a second passenger'
29/30 Jumanji - 25 December
Is nothing sacred? Everyone is so pissed about this remake of the Robin Williams cult hit that it will be a miracle if it escapes a critical drubbing
30/30 Silence - sometime in 2016
Martin Scorsese's next film doesn't have a mafioso or corrupt banker in sight. Liam Neeson and Andrew Garfield star, playing two Jesuit Portuguese Catholic priests who face violent persecution when they travel to Japan to seek out their mentor and spread the teachings of Christianity
Paying homeless people a dollar a day – is that true, I ask Nemes and the film’s co-writer Clara Royer? “Who said that?” they respond in unison. Röhrig, I reply. “Oops,” says László. “We didn’t end up with a lot of homeless people,” he continues. “We had special trained people for the corpses and things like that, not homeless people. There were a few homeless people [among the extras]. In Hungary, if you want to make a film, you have to give money – it’s not for free.”
For his part, Röhrig claims the homeless extras’ experience was a positive one. “So it was extremely moving to me and others, so still today, I had messages from some of these homeless, old ladies, ‘Géza, congratulations, I can’t wait to see the movie.’ And they are on the computer of the homeless shelter, and waiting in line, and they go on the Facebook, the page of the movie, so when I say it’s a team effort, I really mean it,” he says.
It wasn’t just his profession that pointed to him being a perfect Saul; Röhrig’s extraordinary life story has been orientated by the history of the Holocaust.
Born in Hungary in 1967, he was orphaned at the age of 4. He spent eight years in an orphanage before being adopted by a Jewish family. “My [adoptive] grandfather was in a Budapest ghetto. He had a car accident in the 1940s before the occupation – he lost one of his legs.
"So, when the Nazis came, they left him there: what are they going to do with a one legged man? He lost his first wife, his sibling, and his parents. I had a close relationship with him. Even though I wasn’t there, I know that my name was his last word, he said Géza when he died. That always stays with me. Somehow, it felt more like a previous life of mine.”
In high school, Röhrig refused to join the youth section of the communist party in Hungary. When he applied for university, he was told that he couldn’t be accepted, unless he was a member of the youth section, and so decided to move to Poland and study in Krakow.
At first he resisted going to Auschwitz, which is about 40 minutes away. In 1986, just before he had to return to Budapest, he finally went.
“It was still in Soviet hands, it was largely untouched, it wasn’t the tourist attraction at the time,” he says. “It was a snowy, December day. I ended up spending a month there.” Röhrig has written two books on the Holocaust, as well as a poetry collection featuring fictional portrayals of victims organised by their tattoo numbers. “So László, when he thought of me playing the role, he knew that I had an intense relationship with the subject.”
Now 48, Röhrig has four children with his second wife. While filming he tried to live as much in 1945 as possible, even demanding music be turned off; and as a practicing Jew, he refused to work on Saturdays.
He was happy that he didn’t have too much dialogue in the film, he says, because, “one of the things that I don’t like about myself is my voice. When I speak, even now, in my mind, this is not a good voice.”
It’s true that his vocal chords operate at a high octave, but it’s his screen presence and dedication to the cause that make the biggest impression.“I went to bed with this movie, I woke up with this movie. I lost a lot of weight,” he says. “I was by myself, without my family. The single purpose of mine during these 40 days was this movie.”
‘Son of Saul’ is released on 29 AprilReuse content