Year of the Pig

Géza Röhrig on scripts, dybbuks and working with a porcine professional in Shawn Snyder's To Dust

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Géza Röhrig on his co-star Matthew Broderick in Shawn Snyder's To Dust: "He's a born comedian."
Géza Röhrig on his co-star Matthew Broderick in Shawn Snyder's To Dust: "He's a born comedian." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Shawn Snyder was the winner of the Tribeca Film Festival New Narrative Director Competition and Audience Award for To Dust, co-written with Jason Begue, shot by Xavi Giménez, which stars Matthew Broderick and Géza Röhrig as a well-matched odd couple. The film, co-produced by Emily Mortimer and Alessandro Nivola, with music by Tom Waits, Jethro Tull, and a score by Ariel Marx, has a terrific supporting cast, including Natalie Carter as security guard Stella by Starlight, Joseph Siprut as the undertaker, and two young boys, Leo Heller and Sammy Voit, who secretly watch Michal Waszynski's The Dybbuk.

A grave Albert (Matthew Broderick) with Shmuel (Géza Röhrig) in To Dust
A grave Albert (Matthew Broderick) with Shmuel (Géza Röhrig) in To Dust

Géza Röhrig, who was Saul Ausländer in László Nemes's Oscar-winning Son Of Saul, sat down with me at the PMK•BNC offices near Grand Central Terminal for a conversation on the role he plays in To Dust.

Shmuel (Röhrig), a Hasidic cantor and father of two young boys, Noam (Leo Heller) and Naftali (Sammy Voit), loses his wife to cancer. In his grief, he cannot rid himself of thoughts of her deteriorating body and that a part of her soul remains with the remains until she has turned fully to dust. How can he ease her suffering? After the advice within his Orthodox community fails him and a funeral parlor employee suggests he turn to science, a rather unorthodox adventure begins.

Shmuel ends up consulting Albert [Matthew Broderick], a community college "science teacher", who, stuck in the mud of his own lonely and misunderstood existence, turns out to be a most remarkable and convincible teammate in the search for enlightenment.

While the unlikely pair experiment with frozen and warm-blooded pigs, Shmuel's sons do research on their own. They believe that a Dybbuk, an ancient spirit creature from Jewish mythology, may have entered their father and be responsible for his behaviour turning stranger and stranger every day. To Dust is a comedy of decomposition and a moldering feast of mortality unlike anything you'll see on screen.

Géza Röhrig on Shawn Snyder's To Dust: "It's a very unique movie, even on the script level."
Géza Röhrig on Shawn Snyder's To Dust: "It's a very unique movie, even on the script level." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Anne-Katrin Titze: Your last two films both speak of an obsession.

Géza Röhrig: Yeah, I know, Son of Saul and To Dust are really sort of morbid, to have two roles like that.

AKT: Alessandro Nivola told me about the project sometime in the spring of 2017. He was telling me the story and that you would be in it and at first I thought, "Is he joking? Is he making this up on the spot?" Because it sounded so absurd.

GR: I have to say I really believe that in the two movies there clearly are parallels and rhymes and similarities. But there are major differences as well.

AKT: Of course, that goes without saying.

GR: One is really about the collective tragedy. Right? Auschwitz. And this is about a private, very personal tragedy, losing a spouse. And also obviously there is no humour at all in Son of Saul. Here humour has this redeeming quality, which is really, especially in the face of death, one of the things you can do if you can do - is to laugh at it.

AKT: The role you play is such an interesting in-between character. You don't allow the humour to come out of you until the very end. At the same time everything you do ...

Géza Röhrig on Shmuel and the humour coming from Matthew Broderick's Albert: "I'm very very serious and I leave that to Matthew."
Géza Röhrig on Shmuel and the humour coming from Matthew Broderick's Albert: "I'm very very serious and I leave that to Matthew."

GR: Right. I know, I'm very very serious and I leave that to Matthew. He's a born comedian. He just has in the finger of his strip, [this is a slip of the tongue, which could be in the film, and Géza corrects himself immediately] the tip of his finger. I think the movie would have been more shallow and light if for a second I would be not very sort of serious about the loss. It's a very unique movie, even on the script level.

AKT: Was there a moment when you knew - this is for me, I really want to do this?

GR: Yes, on page ten.

AKT: What's on page ten?

GR: Nothing. Generally speaking, I read scripts with my wife. We put the kids into bed and if there's a script - and sometimes there are lots of them - you go through them. Generally scripts are predictable. After a while you know the next twist of the story.

It's like you are seeing so clearly where it's heading and you are hoping it's not. Because it's just cookie-cutter, it's a genre, the industry has its own rules. Here, even on page ten, you have this like - wow, these are very weird components. People don't usually bring these things together. And same thing on page 60, I still had no idea.

Géza Röhrig as Saul Ausländer in László Nemes's Oscar-winning Son Of Saul
Géza Röhrig as Saul Ausländer in László Nemes's Oscar-winning Son Of Saul

AKT: Where this is going?

GR: Yeah. Is it really? So that was very refreshing.

AKT: The dream sequences, the toes, the whole thing about the Dybbuk are woven in so well. At first when the kids talk about "the Dybbuk tape", you wonder what it is. And then it turns out to be the classic film from 1937.

GR: The silent movie, yeah.

AKT: The director was assistant to Murnau. And again, the film in the context of To Dust plays a totally unexpected role.

GR: Yeah, Shawn will know much more about that.

AKT: Had you seen it [The Dybbuk] before?

GR: I had seen it once back in my twenties. When I watched the movie [To Dust] first I was very pleased. Certain things you just can't tell from the script. For example the music. I'm so taken away by the music. I think the music adds a lot.

AKT: Tom Waits.

Géza Röhrig on Albert with Shmuel's pig: "They feed them well before shooting so they're sort of busy digesting, so they're calm and easy."
Géza Röhrig on Albert with Shmuel's pig: "They feed them well before shooting so they're sort of busy digesting, so they're calm and easy."

GR: Tom Waits, but also our composer Ariel Marx who has made a fantastic music. Sometimes you have a scene and the music integrates the scene, it melds it smoothly into the previous parts. Without the music if you would watch it, it would be too strange.

AKT: Also there's your singing.

GR: That's a song actually I brought to the movie. That was a song, a lullaby that my grandfather used to sing me. That's my own personal contribution. The movie starts with the mother humming that song for the kids and the movie ends with me singing to the kids.

AKT: It's a beautiful and haunting tune. By coincidence, I am going to meet with László [Nemes] on Friday.

GR: He is in New York already?

AKT: I don't know. We'll talk about Sunset.

GR: Give him my regards.

AKT: Did you see Sunset? It's a great film.

GR: No, I'm very curious about the reception of his second movie in America.

On Saturday, February 9, Géza Röhrig and Shawn Snyder will participate in a Q&A moderated by Anne-Katrin Titze following the 7:30pm screening at Village East Cinema
On Saturday, February 9, Géza Röhrig and Shawn Snyder will participate in a Q&A moderated by Anne-Katrin Titze following the 7:30pm screening at Village East Cinema Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Speaking of reception, I saw To Dust at Tribeca last year and the audience was like a pot of heated water with little bubbles of laughter coming to the surface here and there from different places, because people could not believe what they're watching.

GR: Yeah, they felt like they're not permitted to laugh. And when Matthew Broderick arrives to the scene, they feel like, okay, now we are allowed to laugh. And then they took it in a more natural way.

AKT: Fascinating is the love that your character Shmuel wants his sons to express for their mother. But you feel that at the same time he wants them to say I love you to him.

GR: Yes, that scene is obviously nothing less than a mild form of child abuse. Even though he means all very well. He wants them to just mourn in a freer way but obviously he does it wrong. You can't press kids to express emotions on order.

AKT: And in a rowboat! Wow!

GR: That's the scene I'm talking about. But then in the very next scene he says "I'm sorry." When the kid has a nightmare, he apologises. It's maddening enough to lose a spouse, such an intimate relationship, untimely. But when you have kids and you have to be responsible and show a good example and all that, that is not an easy task.

AKT: And he doesn't and breaks apart and then is mending again.

To Dust poster - opens in New York on February 8
To Dust poster - opens in New York on February 8

GR: It's a story of a healing.

AKT: The language is very precise. Was that all in the script?

GR: Yes. The script, I have to say, as literature it could be published. It was just very very funny. Because of money we had only twenty days to shoot. It could have gone on for another 15, 20 minutes, there's so much material.

The money we had, which is a million dollars, really allowed us to go for twenty days and not a day over that. Just as with Son of Saul, this is a very focused effort and really ambitious for a first feature.

AKT: Tomorrow, February 5, is the start of the Year of the Pig.

GR: I didn't know that! Chinese? I did not know that!

AKT: Chinese New Years is tomorrow. How did you work with the pig?

GR: That's so funny. That pig, it's probably one of the tricks they always do. They feed them well before shooting so they're sort of busy digesting, so they're calm and easy. That pig was very well behaving.

AKT: No stuntman, you did all the pig action?

GR: Yeah, I'm not sure if this pig has been in another movie or not but this pig really knew its ways.

AKT: It looked quite realistic.

GR: It was a real pig!

AKT: I know, I mean what you are doing to the pig.

GR: And you know, it's all scientifically based. In heart surgery they use parts of the pig. It's all very factual.

To Dust opens in the US on February 8.

On Saturday, February 9, Géza Röhrig and Shawn Snyder will participate in a Q&A moderated by Anne-Katrin Titze following the 7:30pm screening at Village East Cinema.

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