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'Son of Saul' star on why it's not an Oscar-bait Holocaust movie

Géza Röhrig plays Saul, an Auschwitz Sonderkommando, in László Nemes's debut film,
Géza Röhrig plays Saul, an Auschwitz Sonderkommando, in László Nemes's debut film, "Son of Saul."

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You know the nominees. You know the controversies. But did you know this is the weekend Academy members finally start to vote for the best films and filmmaking of 2015?

Few movies have more buzz than "Son of Saul," Hungarian director László Nemes' powerful recreation of Auschwitz at the height of the Holocaust, a leading contender for the Foreign Language Oscar. Critics agree: This is a different look at the appalling crimes of Nazi Germany. But what makes it special? For answers, Off-Ramp contributor R.H.  Greene sat down with Saul himself, a gentle Hungarian poet named Géza Röhrig, to talk about life, art and why tears are inappropriate when contemplating the hell of the Holocaust.

The Hungarian film "Son of Saul" may be the most harrowing film about the Holocaust ever made. Lead actor Géza Röhrig says, "That's the point. Movies I know, they are running these fairy tales about rescuers and survivors and all that. The norm was not to survive. Two out of three Jews in Europe did not. That's what 'Son of Saul' is all about."

Röhrig is thoughtful and soft-spoken. He's a notable poet in his native Hungary. He speaks like one. "In history, man always murdered man. There's no news in that. The news is that they left the dirty work for the victims themselves."

Official trailer for "Son of Saul"

As Saul, Röhrig plunges headlong through the genocidal nightmare of Auschwitz on a strange but human quest. He's a Sonderkommando, a Jew forced to help dispose of the murdered dead. "You know we all have breaking point, and he is dead before dying, he's already so ghost-like and robotic. He can't have a shred of humanity any more."

But one day Saul witnesses a miracle. A boy survives the gas chamber, only to be murdered and marked for dissection by the Nazis. "They might have just locked eyes right before he died. And to his own surprise, when he witnesses the agony of this kid who survives the gas chamber, all of a sudden, he's the closest to Saul, this boy. And from that point on, for him it's way more personal. He's not interested in surviving."

Shot in a relentless series of long takes, "Son of Saul" was designed to make a historical nightmare immediate and real. "Our way was to minimalize," Röhrig says. "We didn't want monologues, we didn't want music. We used very few cuts. We had to bring it down to the eye level."

Röhrig and director László Nemes were adamant: there could be no sentiment, and the audience would never be allowed the luxury of tears. "Well, you know, to avoid melodrama. Kitsch. The sort of response from the viewer that is overwhelmingly emotional."

Isn't weeping entirely appropriate when facing something like the Holocaust?

"No," he says. "It's entirely inappropriate. It's almost appalling to me. Weeping is fine for an individual drama, you know? You know, a parent passes. That happens with the individual, then you cry and that's cathartic and that's great. People love actually crying more than laughing I believe. But when it comes to millions of people, innocent people, young and old, industrially being gassed and burned? I don't think crying does justice to that. You have to be shaken in a more lasting way."

Röhrig knew his topic intimately. Hungarian and Jewish, he visited Auschwitz as a young man and was permanently changed. "It's like the first time you arrive to the sea.  There's that huge moment. And obviously seeing Auschwitz is the same thing in a negative sense. I lost my faith in man, and I had to walk away with faith in something else. And that took time. The place has a certain gravity, or radiation, or whatever you call it."

Röhrig is never offscreen in "Son of Saul" — a remarkable feat for a first-time feature film actor, but it's not his first public performance. To make Saul authentic and true, Röhrig reached back to his youth, when he was in a punk band called Huckleberry. He remembers, "It was in the mid-'80s, when Hungary was a one-party system still — we had an Iron Curtain. It was insufferably quiet there, very gray. There was nothing to join, so we had to create something out of nothing. Making a band was kind of forbidden... And yes, I think performing in the '80s, I think that's considered to be [acting] experience."

Saul is another man in revolt, trying to keep his spirit alive.

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