Holocaust stunner “Son of Saul” team on making a film from the center of hell: “I think the first instinct should be that it cannot be done”

The harrowing Hungarian film, set in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau, wowed audiences and critics at TIFF

Anna Silman
September 19, 2015 6:45PM (UTC)
When it premiered at Cannes this spring, “Son of Saul," the harrowing feature debut from Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes, became an immediate sensation. While films set during the Holocaust are so common as to have practically become a genre unto themselves, Nemes seems to have done the impossible: found a brand new way to depict one of the darkest periods in human history.

The film, which eventually went on to win the Cannes Grand Prix, focuses on a man named Saul, a Sonderkommando -- one of the units of prisoners granted a reprieve from immediate execution to work in the gas chambers -- in Auschwitz-Birkenau during the twilight of the war in 1944. Shot entirely in closeups of Saul's face or his immediate surroundings as he and his fellow Sonderkommandos go about their daily business of leading prisoners to their death and then disposing of the corpses, the film is a brutal, at times unbearable look at what happens to one individual transported to the center of hell. Absent the clichéd sentimentalization or trivializing myth-making of much Holocaust cinema, “Son of Saul” is a visceral, formally rigorous piece of filmmaking that finds its own unique cinematic language to depict the mechanics of daily life in a death camp, something most films about the Holocaust have shied away from.

Of course, a film this extraordinary necessarily has some extraordinary people behind it, and that’s exactly what I discovered when I interviewed Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes and star Géza Röhrig at the Toronto International Film Festival last week. This is the first feature film for the 38-year-old Nemes (after two years spent assisting the iconic Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr), while Röhrig is 48-year-old teacher, poet and Jewish theological seminary graduate who last acted in a few Hungarian films back in the late ’80s. Yet “new” to the film circuit as they are, I have rarely heard people who make movies speak about their craft with such insight and deliberateness, with such a prescient understanding of the responsibility that falls to those who to choose to make cinema that plumbs the depths of human suffering. While “Son of Saul” is already receiving early Oscar buzz for Nemes and Röhrig (and has been chosen as Hungary’s entry for best foreign film), rarely has a gold statuette seemed such an inadequate tribute to a film’s power or to the boldness of vision behind it.

“The whole idea of a Holocaust movie should have never been a genre; that in itself is problematic. It has to be ex nihilo, it has to be created from nothing,” said Röhrig, when asked about the ethics of representing the Holocaust onscreen. “I think the first instinct should be that it cannot be done. But if the inspiration and if the personal motivation is true and strong enough to get through that initial doubt and skepticism, the how, then I think we should welcome it.”

Or as Nemes puts it, with characteristic chutzpah: “If you don't take risks, you shouldn't make cinema.”

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I saw the film last night. I was very affected by it, as I'm sure a lot of viewers have been. 

László Nemes: I hope so.

Can you tell me how the idea for the film came about?

LN: When I first read the so-called “Scrolls of Auschwitz,” which are a set of documents written by dead people, at the time [they were] alive, part of the Sonderkommando, the special group of prisoners in Auschwitz. The prisoners were forced to be in the crematorium, burning people and making their ashes disappear — so just erasing them from the surface of the earth. This is actually the center of hell, right there. But I had this opportunity to read their thoughts, and it was an incredible experience. That was the trigger for the movie: go there in the middle of hell, and tell a story about one of these Sonderkommando members, and tell a very simple story. That was the origin of the film.


And how long had you been thinking about these ideas before you put the film together?

LN: Years and years. The first time I read it was in 2005, and then five years to figure out the angle, the story strategy, and story.

I was wondering if both of you could speak a little bit about the decision to set the story from the perspective of a Sonderkommando, because historically, there's been a sort of fraught narrative around these individuals and their culpability. László, why did you choose this as your storytelling angle, and Géza, what was it like playing that character? 


LN: As I mentioned, this is the center of hell, of the extermination of the European Jewry. And [there are] all the other so-called Holocaust films, which is a sort of genre in itself, dealing with survival and stories that in fact reassure the audience about what the Holocaust was about. I wanted, contrary to that, to bring the viewer into the middle, into the midst of the extermination machine, but still not uncover it all, just take the viewer on a journey with one person who had actually filtered everything, so it would narrow the possibilities of viewing and hearing, and we would, so to speak, rely on the imagination of the viewer. To hint at something that's infinite in the extermination process, that really hints at the horror of it, and to use the viewer to make it as a personal journey for everybody.

Géza Röhrig: After reading the script, I very much believed in this movie from the very beginning. I saw that it was not just going to be another movie about a topic, and started to read, and meet, and listen, and try to figure it out; how it was at all possible for me to play a Sonderkommando member, the state of mind they must have been in to do this day in, day out. You know, I assume they were selected for a job, but the job description obviously was very misleading or minimal: they did not know what was going to come. And once they went through the first day, that must have been the most traumatic shock ever, because the first few days you either made it through or you didn't. So those first few days really had a huge price tag on them. So what did you have to give up from yourself? What was in exchange of surviving to do this very robotically every day, which is a physically exhausting job in itself, to schlep these corpses up and down, and even if you try to desensitize yourself and to try not to see what you see what's right in front of you, and you don't want to hear what's right in front of you, it's just a mode of human existence that is clearly far beyond anything I ever experienced in my own lifetime, thank God. But I also felt a strength; I felt that if I would have been there, I for sure would have wanted to survive. That was pretty clear for me.

That's interesting.


GR: I’m not taking any sort of credit for it, it's just the fabric [of who] I am; I wouldn't give my skin so easily, especially if anyone wanted it. So I would have done my utmost to survive. And what was really very helpful was that this character was not a very detailed or developed character. There was plenty of room for me to fill it out with my own colors or imaginations. László never came to me and said, “The Saul I had in mind is this way or that way,” so that freedom allowed me to try different things, and after the first few days, I got the feeling that — they developed in the lab with 35mm, so that the next day or the next night, the cinematographer and László saw what we did, the takes we did the day before. And so carefully, I started to feel like this might be it, it's working. This was the impression I got from them, that it's going to be fine, something like that.

The film is very focused on the character’s present, his experience in Auschwitz-Birkenau on a daily basis. With most Holocaust movies you get a flashback to life before the war – there's none of that. How much did you flesh out an inner life for the character? Did you try to imagine where this character had come from?


GR: Well, yes, in the beginning I thought that I had to flesh it out in a very concrete way. Was he divorced? Was he religious? Was he poor, was he rich? All kinds of things. I thought this person cannot exist in a vacuum, I have to get these details down. But later on, I let this go. Because I realized that it's kind of like a spaceship that has lots of rockets, so in order to leave gravity you do have to have all those engines on you. But once you're up there, the actual spaceship gets rid of all that. What was this long, huge spaceship on the ground is gonna [disintegrate] because once you leave gravity, you don't need those rockets anymore. So I felt that once someone arrives to this — it’s a very generic situation in some way -- you either can do it or you can't. And if you are a Sonderkommando member, and you did, let's say, the first week, that means that your past is really past. It's over, it’s not you anymore. It doesn't matter if you were rich, it doesn't matter if you were poor. This is a different, much more different fundamental way of being. So I think that they figured this out themselves, everybody his own way with the Sonderkommandos, not to try to have some sort of fake pretend continuity with the past. This is like a new -- I don't know, not a beginning, but this is something else. This is not the world as we have known it.

LN: No backstory, by the way. I mean, we found at some point that the backstory we had in the first version of the screenplay had to go, because these people, these Sonderkommando members had no past.

GR: And no future.


There has been a lot of talk about “Son of Saul” as a whole new way of making film about the Holocaust.

LN: I'm glad about that.

Can you talk a little bit about that?

LN: I wish that it would be harder from now on to make a film on the subject, not take it as easy as it was before, like a history book. It's an external point of view. I think filmmakers too many times have this tendency to use the camera as a sort of descriptive showing of a soccer game, or something like that. You know, a sort of re-transmission. Whereas [this] you cannot encompass, it's something important, you cannot encompass the horror that took place; opening it up and reconstructing only reduces the scope of it. Whereas narrowing it would much more rely on the imagination of the viewer, who would use their mind to hint at something that's much more hard to put into words and images.


GR: When it comes to Holocaust movies, you find yourself against two extremities. One extremity is I think very doctrinaire and very theoretical, or at least hardliners who are saying that they are the proponents of non-representability. And they say, you know, you should never go there, it’s not visualizable, it’s sacred, it cannot be done: stay away from the Holocaust. Whoever goes there, touches there, is trivializing it. You know that school, and I couldn't disagree with that approach more, because I think there are plenty of neo-Nazis in the world who would welcome such an approach. And I think that to mystify the Holocaust, and to not make movies or novels or whatever about that, it would be a disservice. I think it’s a moral duty of cinema and literature, with their authentic right responsible way, to attack the topic. It’s a significant, very significant historical event. And it would be very awkward not to try to treat it and to deal with it.

So the other extremity is to make some sort of a consumer product out of the Holocaust, which also kind of happened in the mid-’90s: super-productions, one after the other, started to use this area of history and this time of history to run stories for entertainment. And that treatment, it’s not right. In cases, it’s outright outrageous for the memory of the victims. You know, there is so much deviation from historical reality, making it a toy camp, making it fun. So these are the two extremities you find yourself in, and there must be a fine line between the two that has to be invented, the language of each and every time from the [get-go]. There's no such thing as conventions or a beaten path you can rely on. So the whole idea of a Holocaust movie should have never been a genre; that in itself is problematic. It has to be ex nihilo, it has to be created from nothing. And I think that all these ethical considerations that go into making a movie about the Shoah are legitimate. I think the first instinct should be that it cannot be done. But if the inspiration and if the personal motivation is true and strong enough to get through that initial doubt and skepticism, the how, then I think we should welcome it. Because if we could go with [Claude] Lanzmann [the director of seminal Holocaust documentary “Shoah”] and we should say that this is only for the documentary field – I think that what the documentary filmmakers can uncover is one thing.

LN: He loved the film.

GR: He loved the film, Lanzmann.


I saw that. 

GR: So let's say that's like an X-ray. I'm giving you a medical analogy. So what the documentary filmmaker sees is an X-ray of the human body, they see the bones. And then you get the fictionalizers, then you get the fiction movies, and they are like scanning. Its a different type of thing. They see the bones, we see the blood. We do add something else than documentary movies do, and that is something as important as documentary. So, you know, usually in life you have to be intellectually very honest -- no one should ever claim monopoly on the Holocaust, like some documentaries do. But on the other hand, no one should ever cover or hide his talentlessness or mental laziness, and rely on the ready-made tragedy that will work. Instead of the actual movie, they are relying on this horrific context that will produce what they otherwise wouldn't be able to achieve.

Did you know when you were making this that this film was going to be a sensation? The reaction that you got at Cannes, was that something that you were predicting?

LN: Not at all. I thought by making it that no one will see this film and it will be a failure. It’s still a prototype. We didn't know what we were doing — I mean, ethically we knew what we were doing, but we didn't know what the experience of it would be. We had no idea. So it came as a surprise to have this kind of focus, although I knew, really deep inside of me, I knew that this is something that has never been done, and never been seen, so it might be compelling. But I didn't know how it would work with the audiences, let alone world-wide distribution and visibility and frenzy. So it’s incredible for the film. Also, it’s good for what the film says about empathy. These are, I think, important things to talk about today.


GR: It was a very risky undertaking. Especially for a first movie.

Well, it's pretty amazing. 

LN: Yeah, but if you don't take risks, you shouldn't make cinema. I mean, that's part of art. If there's no risk, then there's no interest also. It's good, because it's thrilling. Not the film, but the experience is thrilling as a maker, because it's something new.

Even watching the film is an incredibly traumatic experience. Has it weighed heavily on you, being part of this process? Particularly having to embody this character on a daily basis – is it something you're able to compartmentalize? 


GR: Well, it's interesting, because László spent five years with this movie.

LN: At least.

GR: At least. And I spent a couple months with it. But of course that doesn't mean I wasn't very much living and growing up with all this on my mind. And I don't think this movie is really ever over for me. I was born in 1967, so I was born in the world of Auschwitz. It couldn't be hidden from me, for all kinds of purposes.

Were you born in Hungary? 

GR: I was born in Hungary, which is part of the killing zone. So yes, it was very much in the air, and I mean, you know, unless you live in some sort of, I don't know where, in a cave or another planet, you see that this type of brutality is out there.

Hannah Arendt and some others have been critical of the Sonderkommando, saying that they were perpetrators as much as they were victims, and you have criticized that view. Could you speak a little bit to that? 

GR: Look, right after the war, even during the years of Auschwitz, the Sonderkommandos had a terrible rap. Because they were living isolated, they couldn't talk or communicate by the rules with the rest of the camp. So what these people, these skeletal bodies — we all know how hard they lived — what they saw is that these people were dressed better, they had longer hair. The rumor was out that they were more stocky, they had better food rations. So it's understandable they didn't understand: How come these fellow Jews have it better? And they didn't know, because they weren't told, that in exchange of that, these fellow Jews didn't have the slightest hope to survive, as opposed to them, who always can somehow hope that they can make it through.

The Sonderkommandos knew, the members, that they were selected, and there is no one to testify from the previous group. Right? So they knew that they have three or four months. So this misunderstanding about their role in the structure of the death camps was kind of stubborn. So people like Primo Levi and others, they viewed them as collaborators. And it took some time, probably around the seventies, when the first accounts from actual former Sonderkommandos came, in the form of books and memoirs, that they kind of cleared their role. They were under the threat of immediate death. They were selected and forced to do what they have done. So they basically had two choices. One is to right away, voluntarily march into the gas chamber and to, under the name of an absolute moral championship, to [say] I’m not going to legalize the system. Or, which makes more sense on a human level, is that since they were not murdering anybody, and it would have [been] done otherwise, and they had family on the other side of the wall — their wives and their parents and their sisters and their brothers — understandably, they did their very best to survive. And [how] did they occupy themselves if they had any spare time? By trying to witness, to try to testify by hiding and burying exactly what they were forced to do, by trying to make photos of what's happening out there. They tried to revolt, to get out, to let the world know. So I think that it is really -- it’s either ignorance or very insensitive to blame and point fingers in 2015, saying they should have known better.

What's next for you both, in the wake of this?

LN: I have my next film in Hungary lined up. Its a 1910 Budapest story of a young woman. It’s also a thriller. So I'm preparing the film, it will be shot before Word War I.

And Géza, you don’t have any more plans to act right now? 

LN: We'll see about that. We'll see about that.

GR: Look, I'm a very young man, and I hope that if the right role comes along, then I would be open to it.

I read an article that described you as a rabbi slash schoolteacher slash punk rocker.

GR: This is out there – I'm not a rabbi. 

LN: Who said that?

GR: Some London-based website, Jewish Renaissance. They called me up and I explained to them that I was learning in a yeshiva in Brooklyn [for] years, and they took it for me being a rabbi, probably because I sported a big beard at the time. In any case, I'm not a rabbi, but I am a person who believes and keeps the laws -- not as much as I should, but I try my best. But can I go back to the previous question?

Yes, please. 

GR: This is a story I'm telling everyone, because I think this somehow captures the whole thing about being a Sonderkommando. You said that there's people out there who view them as some sort of VIPs, [as] people who were gaining on others, people who collaborated in a morally dubious way. So I personally know a man in Tarrytown, Westchester, and he has two sons. And their father, they always knew that he was in Auschwitz, but only in the intensive care, in his last days, did he reveal to his sons in what capacity he was in Auschwitz. And he said, “Boys, I was a Sonderkommando member.” Of course they had no idea what that was, it’s a German word, so they went on Google and they realized that, what the heck, and they tried to ask their father, and he said, “Nah, I just wanted you to know that much.” And peacefully, the man died, a considerably wealthy Polish Jew, a couple of years ago.

And after the funeral service, in the presence of an attorney, after the shiva, they opened the will. And then came the shock, because this old Jew from Poland requested in his will to be cremated and [to have] his ashes brought back to the oven, to the crematorium in Auschwitz and placed there forever. Which if you think about it, is mind-boggling. First, Jews traditionally don't cremate. Number two, by requesting his ashes be brought back to Auschwitz, he took away the solace, the comfort for his sons and wife, to go to his resting place in a Jewish cemetery on his yahrzeit [the anniversary of someone's death], to relate to that place, and remember him. And finally, basically what he's quintessentially saying by his will is that, yes, I love you, you're my family, you can have my wealth, you can have everything of me, but -- I really belong to them. They are mine.

He never left. 

GR: Never left, and in some ways they are my comrades, they are my family, these are the people with whom I want to spend my eternity.

LN: I get goosebumps every time, and [I’ve heard it] ten times.

And the kids didn't know. Wow.

GR: So that's the type of thing. That’s why someone said there's two things to survive. You have to survive the camp, and you have to survive survival. So all these people who are raising these moral questions, and try to speak about the Sonderkommandos negatively or in a questioning nature, I think they just don't really realize what this must have been.

Anna Silman

MORE FROM Anna SilmanFOLLOW annaesilman

Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •