Géza Röhrig is used to being around death, on screen and off. The Hungarian-born actor and poet who made his American debut in 2015 in “Son of Saul,” set in Auschwitz, now stars in “To Dust” — which opens nationally on Feb. 8 — as a chasidic man distraught over the death of his wife. And for more than two decades, he served as a member of a chevra kadisha, literally “holy society,” taking care of the ritual washing and dressing of the dead before burial.
“I don’t think that death is the opposite of life,” he tells The Jewish Week in an interview on the Upper West Side. “I believe that life and death are interrelated parts, a continuous existence, an eternal rhythm. For me, doing a tahara [ritual preparation] is uplifting, like praying.”
Röhrig’s countenance, so intense on screen, is gentler in person. But his gaze is still pensive and penetrating. The 51-year-old actor’s career was jumpstarted when an acquaintance offered him the starring role in “Son of Saul,” which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and other awards. At the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, “To Dust” won the Audience Award for Narrative Film and director Shawn Snyder won the award for Best New Narrative Director.
Columbia University Professor Annette Insdorf, author of “Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust,” tells The Jewish Week, ‘“To Dust’ is an original and provocative black comedy, a first feature that treats death and mourning with a surprisingly light touch. Géza Röhrig is fascinating to watch. His character Shmuel’s obsession with burying his wife properly — releasing her soul — is reminiscent of ‘Son of Saul.’ There, Röhrig’s character is irrationally obsessed with burying a boy — according to Jewish ritual — in Auschwitz. Both protagonists hover in the threshold between life and death.”
Röhrig stars alongside Matthew Broderick, who plays Albert, a science professor at a community college in upstate Rockland County, corduroy sports jacket and all. Theirs is an unlikely connection, as Albert develops compassion for this strange figure who demands his help in learning about how a body decomposes. Their scheme ultimately involves a pig, clandestine forays into the woods and a long road trip.
“What a great actor he is,” Röhrig says of Broderick. “He nailed it. It was a pleasure — I’m such a rookie — to act with him and see how he does this.”
Shot entirely on Staten Island, the film is visually beautiful, whether featuring a rowboat skimming a lake, or, early on, the wordless, precise and tender work of the women performing the tahara for Shmuel’s late wife (with Tom Waits singing the bluesy “Blow, Wind, Blow” in a gravelly voice). In fact, after Shmuel’s mother announces his wife’s death to him and he says the traditional blessing, no words are spoken through the tahara, burial and shiva other than some whispered blessings. In his silence, Röhrig projects immense emotion.
The actor says that when he first received the script for consideration, he and his wife, who works at HBO, read it together. He says that usually, after 15 pages, one can see where the script is headed.
“But here we were on page 40 and we had no idea what would be on the next page. This was bringing together certain things that you don’t see on camera. We loved that freshness and unpredictability. The script asserts our right to grieve in a personal way.”
“I can see some people having issues with the storyline,” Röhrig says, referring to scenes in which Shmuel’s obsession drives him beyond the law. “We are not trying to say he is right. This is not a halachic guide. This is a movie. This is art.”
Röhrig was born in Budapest. After his father died when he was 4, he lived in an orphanage and was then adopted by a Jewish family when he was 12. As a teen, he founded an underground punk band and later studied literature in Poland and earned a master’s degree in directing from the Budapest University of Drama and Film.
Röhrig was especially close to his adoptive grandfather, who survived Auschwitz while most of his family was killed there. He knew that he needed to visit Auschwitz and traveled there in 1986 — he spent day after day alone in the barracks on dark December days.
“I felt as if something fell over my eyes. I was finally seeing reality as it is. Whereas in ‘Schindler’s List,’ life becomes colorful at the end, my experience never became colorful again. I am not living in the world after Auschwitz. I am living in the world of Auschwitz. Auschwitz opened up my eyes to what humans are capable of.”
He says that he has always been a believer in God, and Auschwitz didn’t change that. After 20 days in the barracks, he began to know that his next step would be to go to Israel — to learn Hebrew, to study, to undergo circumcision; he took on his late grandfather’s Hebrew name at his bris.
“I can’t become six million, I can be one. I can stand in the place of one,” he says.
Once in Israel, he lived on a kibbutz, studied at an ulpan and learned in a yeshiva for people with little background for two years. “That’s how the journey started, and it never stopped.”
Since 2000, Röhrig has lived in New York, and he earned a second master’s degree, this time in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and taught Jewish studies.
He says that acting wasn’t particularly his ambition, but rather, “it just happened, like so many things. I never meant to be in the U.S., but I’m happy to be here.” He adds, “I gave up at age 4 to be in charge.”
Humor is a great release of anxiety. Death and humor work beautifully together here.
While the beard he sports in “To Dust” is real (the current version is more closely trimmed), the payes are not. Röhrig lives with his wife and four children in Riverdale and attends the Young Israel of North Riverdale. He participates in “daf yomi,” the daily study of a page a day of Talmud, although he admits being drawn more to midrash and Kabbalah. But his rabbis have told him that he needs “to first learn Gemara, step-by-step.”
Several volumes of his poetry have been published in Hungarian, and for the last 11 years he has been working on and off on a novel. When I ask about the connection between poetry and acting, expecting to hear something about paying close attention, he says he doesn’t see similarities between the two. “My story as a poet is fairly typical — most people who write poems start at 10 or 12, and my career as an actor is atypical – I did “Son of Saul” in my 40s. I don’t view myself as a poet who acts, or as an actor who writes.”
“Poetry is very solitary. I like to do it in the dark. The dark helps with concentration, there’s less stimulus from the outside world. Acting and making a movie are team work. There has to be an other, and there has to be chemistry.”
Conversation with Röhrig keeps circling back to loss, mourning and questions about God and death. The film has moments of dark humor, and Röhrig says, “Humor is a great release of anxiety. Death and humor work beautifully together here.
“While it’s a dark movie, it’s not as dark as ‘Son of Saul.’ This is a personal tragedy not on the same level. But is there anything more unsettling, shocking and confusing than the death of a loved one? I was 4 years old when my father died. My uncle rightfully decided not to take me to the funeral. So I kept asking, ‘Where is he,’ and my uncle would say, ‘He’s dead.’ I said, ‘I got that. But when can I see him?’
“This doesn’t fade, no matter how old you are when you lose a loved one. It’s why I think it’s one of those evergreen topics that art can deal with.”
Röhrig says that at screenings, people come up to him and instead of asking about the film, tell him stories of death, hug him and thank him.
The end of the film — no spoilers here — was particularly challenging for Röhrig. He says he tried to get the director to change the plot as he “didn’t for a second feel comfortable,” but it is unchanged. It was hard for him to act this part, and it is hard for him to watch it. But in the end, he says, I’m an actor.”