Written by Tom Abrams, András Szekér and János Szász
Directed by János Szász
Set in a small border village over the course of World War II, Hungarian curio The Notebook is unlike any war film you’ve ever seen. Its central characters are twin boys, named only in the credits as One (András Gyémánt) and Other (László Gyémánt), who think and act as a single person. At the beginning of the film, their parents take them away from their luxurious city apartment, fearing that identical twins would be too conspicuous in wartime. They are sent to live with their mean-spirited Grandmother (Piroska Molnár), despite the fact that she has unequivocally fallen out with their mother and is suspected of murdering her husband. The only instructions given to them are to keep up with their studies and record everything that happens in a notebook. It doesn’t matter how they write it down, as long as it’s the truth.
The opening shot shows the twins sleeping in darkness, with only their faces bathed in light. They are close enough to be touching and the camera angle makes it seem as though they are lying one on top of the other. Right from the start, it is clear that they are inseparable and can never bear to be apart. Much of their dialogue is given in voiceover narration, making it impossible to tell which is speaking. The point is it doesn’t matter – they are one and the same. Even as individuals, the twins would have been an unsettling presence but together they are downright surreal. Often portrayed standing side by side, facing directly into the camera, they exhibit a weird intensity and single-mindedness, like they are constantly trying to beat you at a mental game. The smooth theatricality of the production amplifies this effect, particularly when the other characters display equally bizarre behaviour.
Despite the wartime setting, The Notebook is established as an archetypal fairy tale. The twins are far from home with no prospect of returning, left at the mercy of an elderly woman who everyone believes to be a witch. Grandmother makes them work hard for their food and refers to them only as ‘bastards’, but it quickly becomes apparent that no amount of psychological abuse is going to break the boys. The situation they find themselves in, as it turns out, is not hard enough. After being accused of stealing, taking a beating and finding a soldier starving to death in the forest, they realise they have to toughen up. They punch each other in the face, wilfully solicit punishment and refuse to eat for four full days, determined to prepare themselves for anything because anything could happen to them. This is not just a childish fairy tale – this is war.
The twins’ behaviour gets increasingly amoral as they assimilate the influences of everyone around them. They learn to swindle money and goods out of the locals from a girl named Harelip (Orsolya Tóth), while the appalling events in the village and nearby concentration camp teach them that everybody kills and life has no discernible value. Violence, anti-Semitism, sexual abuse and murder become regular occurrences in their day to day lives. They pedantically record everything in the notebook and it gets imprinted in their minds. There is a chilling sequence which shows their collection of insects and small animals, categorised into grids and glued on the pages. They slaughter and mutilate the animals in order to learn how to kill – it is the Holocaust in miniature form. Other scenes are memorable for their black, twisted comedy, particularly one which features an attractive, red-headed German maid (Diána Kiss) trying to lure the boys into a bathtub.
The Notebook continually takes you by surprise and things that seem ridiculous one minute can have tremendous gravity the next. It is jarring and discomforting early on, as you struggle to get a feel for what it is trying to do, but, by the end, it becomes a gripping parable of war. Situated on the Hungarian border, the village is a microcosm for the entire conflict, containing different nationalities, concentration camps, soldiers, civilians, Nazis and Jews. Death is arbitrary and suffering is universal. One and Other survive because they accept all the hardship that is thrown at them and seek out far more that is not. They refuse to take sides and recognise the atrocities for what they are, eventually moulding themselves into compassionate martyrs. To justify doing what they need to do to survive, they must become the victims of their own actions. Director János Szász’s film is strange and off-kilter, but covers such well-worn ground in a startling and original form. It is an impassioned condemnation of the essence of war, in its violent and grotesque absurdity.