Magazine article The New Yorker

Watching

Magazine article The New Yorker

Watching

Article excerpt

WATCHING

Last May, Stephanie Garry, the chief administrator at the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel, a funeral home at Ninety-first Street and Amsterdam Avenue, was scrolling Indiewire in her office when she came across an article about "Son of Saul," a Hungarian film by the director Laszlo Nemes. She gasped, and immediately paged Geza Rohrig, a forty-eight-year-old employee, who was downstairs with a body. Since 2001, Rohrig has been a shomer , or watcher, at the chapel; according to traditional Jewish custom, a body should not be left alone before a funeral. " 'Son of Saul'?" Garry said, incredulously. "Oh, you found out," Rohrig replied. Rohrig is the star of the film, which had just won the Grand Prix, at Cannes. In January, it won the Golden Globe Award for the Best Foreign Language Film, and it has been nominated for an Oscar in the same category.

Rohrig has a high, accented voice, tousled hair, and eyes that either glow or, as in "Son of Saul," go hauntingly blank. The film is set in a concentration camp in 1944. Rohrig plays a member of the Sonderkommando--imprisoned Jews who were conscripted to herd inmates into the gas chambers and then dispose of their remains. Much of the film is shot in extreme closeup of Rohrig's face, so as to leave the unimaginable on the periphery. It is his first film. A former kindergarten teacher, Rohrig has published eight books in Hungarian, mostly poetry. His latest collection of poems comes out this week; its title translates as "The Man Who Is Carrying His Roots in His Shoes."

"Jews are not big on afterlife," Rohrig said the other day. "This is it: good enough." He was sitting in the basement of the chapel, as men with beards--watchers changing shifts--shuffled in and out. In addition to watching, Rohrig washes bodies before burial. He opened the door of a vault-like refrigerator, where two recent arrivals were wrapped in white shrouds. "These people are new--they are not washed yet," he said. Washing is traditionally done by groups of three, so that "no perversion can take place." Shifts for watchers last eight hours. Watchers recite ten Psalms every half hour, but, in between, things can get boring. When he was a student, Rohrig passed the time studying. Now he listens to jazz on his iPhone or works on his first novel, about a family of Gypsies. …

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