We’ve seen countless films depicting the monstrosity of World War II, but The Notebook gives us an unflinching look at the monsters it created. Both observant and nonjudgmental, director, János Szász, drops us into a war zone bereft of borders or buffers. Allegiances crumble and shift like the tattered landscape, where even familial ties yield to stark necessity. This is a challenging film that reaffirms the survival of the human spirit, not through acts of courage or bravery, but by harnessing our spitefulness and hatred to outlast the enemy. Whether the soul can endure such a coldhearted transformation is left for the audience to decide.
For most filmgoers, it’s impossible to comprehend the daily horror of living in a residential war zone and the toll it takes on the human spirit. Based on the French novel by Agota Kristof, The Notebook takes us down the dark path of dehumanization with startling and methodical precision. Few films have tackled the psychological damage of warfare quite like this. Director, Szász, squeezes us into the confined squalor until we can feel the suffocating oppression. It’s a bleak and intimate environment; calloused over from hard labor and unimaginable hopelessness. There is no melodrama to be found here… no one has that luxury. Least of all, The Twins (László and András Gyémánt).
The Twins have no names; they function as a single entity. Inseparable, the boys share that otherworldly connection that makes them both frightening and fascinating. Their Father (Ulrich Matthes), a German officer, gives the Twins the sacred task of recording their lives in a blank notebook. Szász’ beautiful direction brings these pages to life with words and drawings; crude pictograms of Concentration Camp atrocities as filtered through the eyes of 13 year-old boys. As Germany’s fortunes take a dire turn in the war, the boys’ lives of relative comfort are shattered forever when their Mother (Gyöngyvér Bognár) delivers them to their estranged Grandmother (Piroska Molnár) in a desolate Hungarian village. What follows is their harrowing journey from innocent boys to nihilistic survivors.
This world is populated by grotesque figures. From leering German officers, to sexual predators and pedophiles, the Twins must negotiate the difficult terrain of being both outsiders and curiosities. They are routinely beaten and humiliated by townspeople and their Grandmother. Instead of creating foreign aggressors, Szász and his co-writer, András Szekér, internalize the threat. To the Twins, everyone around them is an enemy. Their discipline to persevere is driven by a palpable spite to deny anyone the pleasure of defeating them.
The filmmakers expertly blur the boundary between survival and psychopathy. In fact, there’s almost a perverse beauty to the Twins’ dedication to distancing themselves physically and emotionally from their humanity. To train their bodies not to feel pain, they whip each other into a bloody stupor. To conquer their discomfort with death, they needlessly kill bugs and animals. And yet, despite every effort to shed their vulnerable humanity, the Twins still experience love, loneliness and devotion, albeit in their own twisted way. The Notebook treads uncomfortable ground because it strays so far outside our experience. It asks us to contemplate doing the unthinkable, and challenges us to find our own point of no return.
The performances here are all strong, but no one commands the screen like Piroska Molnár as the Twins’ vile Grandmother. She is a loathsome creature who deprives the boys of food and warm clothing during the brutal winter. Creeping around her buried treasures (inherited from a husband whom she supposedly murdered), Grandmother almost resembles Gollum; petting and canoodling with her ‘precious’ jewelry. And yet, despite her unwillingness to address the boys as anything other than “bastards,” she has a deep, abiding love for them. There are no simple answers in this world… only impossible choices and moral queasiness.
Submitted as Hungary’s selection for Best Foreign Language Film at last year’s Academy Awards, The Notebook is finally getting a much-deserved North American release. It’s an unconventional film that lacks a traditional script structure or propulsive storyline. There are no action set pieces or last minute heroics. There are just two boys, united in their resolve to defeat an indifferent world. That they utilize the darker angels of their nature to accomplish this task makes for both an upsetting and mesmerizing film-going experience.