A Look Back at the Holocaust, Through an Oscar-Winning Film and its Lead Actor

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Picture by Robert Sandler

The social studies and English departments organized a screening of the Oscar-winning film “Son of Saul” (2015) and a question-and-answer session with the leading actor, Géza Rohrig, on Tuesday, December 13. The film was shown in its entirety to students in the Jewish History and Advanced Placement (AP) English Literature: Psychology and Literature classes during periods eight, nine, and 10 in the Murray Khan Theater. The event was primarily organized by these classes’ respective teachers: social studies teacher Robert Sandler and English teacher Dr. David Mandler.

The Hungarian film, directed by László Nemes, follows a day in the life of the fictitious Auslander Saul (played by Rohrig), a sonderkommando working in Auschwitz during the Holocaust. With almost the entire movie featuring shots either of Saul’s face or from over his shoulder, the story is told from his point of view.  

Earlier this year, the film won the Grand Prix in Cannes, the Golden Globe for best foreign film, and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year in 2016.

Rohrig, who was born in Budapest in 1967, lived in Jerusalem in the early ’90s before moving to Morristown, New Jersey, to learn at a Hasidic yeshiva. He has lived in New York since 2000. He graduated with an M.A. in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York and has taught in various schools.

Rohrig and Dr. Mandler knew each other as children, and Rohrig reached out to Dr. Mandler in the interest of sharing his experiences with the students.

Dr. Mandler and Sandler were both interested in the movie. “I’ve always been really fascinated with this topic, and I’ve had survivors who escaped from Nazi-occupied Europe [come to my class recently],” Sandler said.

Dr. Mandler said the movie shed new light on the time period.“This is a film that deeply impressed me not only by its novel approach to depicting the Holocaust, but also in the way a single person’s fate and decisions were captured on screen,” he said. The film, an immensely powerful production, also features many intense, violent scenes.

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Courtesy of Robert Sandler

After the screening, Rohrig answered questions from students. During the session, Rohrig revealed that it was the first film that the director had produced and that it was filmed in just 20 days.

Sandler also found Rohrig to be an excellent speaker and provided new, unique insight on the topic. “He was so thoughtful in his responses to the kids. Each question he answered with so much honesty and such thoughtful comments, relating it to history and contemporary politics,” Sandler said.

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Courtesy of Robert Sandler

Students had strong opinions on the film. “It was not a fun movie to watch—it was kind of sickening, but I think it gave me a better impression of how people felt during the camp rather than afterwards and how they reflect on it,” senior Bayle Smith-Salzberg, a student in Sandler’s Jewish History class, said.  

The teachers hope that other students shared Smith-Salzberg’s experience. Dr. Mandler said he wanted his students to a gain “an appreciation of the film as an art form and its subject matter,” Dr. Mandler said. “I wanted students to see how art is able to capture human psychology even in the most extreme situations.”

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