The Notebook (“A nagy füzet)
Learning from Evil
Despite its unfortunate American title, aligning it with a certain Nicholas Sparks adaptation, János Szász’s “The Notebook” is a thoroughly provocative WWII film. The protagonists are twin boys, played with convincingly deadened spirits by András and László Gyémánt, whose plight could easily degenerate into banal emotive cues. This is the story of twin siblings who endure the harshness of WWII in a village on the Hungarian border and look at their survival by studying and learning from the evil surrounding them.
The film opens during the latter years of the war, as the adolescent Hungarian boys are handed over to their grandmother (Piroska Molnár), known by local villagers as “the witch”. Their mother, (Gyöngyvér Bognár), feared for their safety under the threat of impending air raids and so took them away. The grandmother is strict, stern and vulgar from the moment she takes in the boys She calls them names and assures them that their mother won’t be coming back for them. The grandmother’s presence seems to be something from a fairytale but this is not fairytale of a film. It is more of a sensory exploration of wartime atrocities, something the boys become convinced they need to adapt to in order to survive.
The boys tell their father that they are keeping a notebook because he demanded they write down only the truth. Szász uses this concept as a kind of irony since the film expresses that which can never be absolutely true— the dramatic reenactment of catastrophe. It becomes even more ironic because the twins cannot be held up to a reasonable standard of discerning fact and fiction. We see this when the boys start beating each other and starving to make themselves impervious to the impending punishment they anticipate.
But his is not sadistic humanism and we understand that what really happened could have been much worse than what we see here. By using a somewhat tender style the twins go through a series of challenges to their bourgeois innocence. These include a German officer whose interest in the twins is purely pedophilic, a thieving woman with a cleft lip, and a woman who insists upon bathing with the twins, only to end up caressing, washing, and masturbating with one of their feet. Granted these seem to be lurid but Szász shows them as inevitable consequences of power gone awry. We see that true terror resides in its mimetic effects and transforms sensibility and desire just as thoroughly as it rips through flesh.
Sending children from the city to the countryside was a common one during World War II. In this film, it’s the catalyst for the degradation and corruption of two adolescent boys. While the boys’ father, a soldier, goes back to fight, their mother begs her own mother (who she hasn’t seen in 20 years) to take her children in, promising to come back when the war is over. The two boys are put to work, chopping wood, and drawing water. They attempt to nourish themselves by continuing with their lessons, studying the Bible, and writing an account of their lives in a notebook that their father gave them. They are to record their experiences for him during his absence.
There is not much plot— the film is comprised mostly of stark, difficult-to-watch vignettes in which the boys are subjected to painful or bizarre situations. Not only do they take abuse from their grandmother, the brothers are severely beaten when they attempt to track down a thief who’s stolen their wares. Then there is a starving German soldier they try to help who dies of cold and hunger in the woods near their home, and they see firsthand examples of anti-Semitism. There are also some dark sexual scenes here— a German officer living next door takes an odd interest in them, and a beautiful woman takes obvious pleasure from bathing with them (an act that seems to leave the boys mostly puzzled). Their best friend, a girl referred to as Harelip (Orsolya Toth), informs them that an easy source of cash is blackmailing the lecherous deacon.
The two brothers quickly become used to and tainted by their surroundings, almost reveling in their ability to toughen themselves. A particularly gruesome scene sees them punching and hitting each other in order to become immune to pain, and they begin killing insects and small animals, as well as standing up to their grandmother (who begins to look on them with a newfound respect)—and they only get worse from there. Big eyed and smooth skinned, they’re the picture of budding youth, yet both have truly hardened themselves. Their dead-eyed stares add an almost macabre sense of eeriness.
The film is visually stunning. Though Grandmother’s house and the village are marked by poverty, the scenes are gorgeous to behold, contrasting sharply with the violence and abuse taking place. There is very effective use of symbolism, though it’s rarely subtle. The opening shot of the boys sleeping nestled against each other and breathing in sync, for instance, emphasizes their seeming innocence, while several shots of the dead insects is a frightening example of how twisted they’re becoming and a stand-in for the implied, off-screen deaths we aren’t seeing.
Their motivation, however, is not fully developed. Their parents’ apartment was bourgeois and attractive and when they get to their grandmother’s things turn horrible. The two boys are seemingly well-grounded adolescents who snap—in fact, many of the worst things they experience happen after they’ve already turned. Viewers may find themselves questioning quite a lot when the credits finally roll: there’s a lot to unpack. This may not the most original treatment of the death of innocence and the corrupting influence of war, but overall this is a gripping and chilling work, taut and explosive.
Referred to as One and the Other, twin actors Andras and Laszlo Gyemant are the unfortunate weak points in the film. Their performances are one note, the transgression from privileged, spoiled children to browbeaten, cold blooded killers is hardly depicted with any sort of emotional range by the twins, who seem either vacant or surly, with nary a modulated expression in-between. They appear too well kept when we consider the undesirable conditions they’re placed in for so long.