by Kathie Smith
During WWII, Hungary, like most Eastern European countries, was caught between two aggressors, each with their own brutal and oppressive tactics. Although Hungary joined the Axis Powers in 1941 (mostly in response to the Soviet Union’s increasing hostility), they were having second thoughts a few years later as they were being pummeled by an endless stream of Soviet troops. Acting Prime Minister Miklós Kállay began negotiating a surrender with the Allies until Hitler caught wind of it and sent troops and a puppet government to keep Hungary from straying. The subsequent German occupation of Hungary in 1944 would only be replaced by Soviet occupation less than a year later, a struggle that left Hungary economically and socially shell shocked.
Director: János Szász
Producers: Pál Sándor, Sánor Söth
Writers: János Szász, András Szekér, Ágota Kristóf (novel)
Cinematographer: Christian Berger
Editor: Szilvia Ruszev
Cast: László Gyémánt, András Gyémánt, Piroska Molnár, Ulrich Thomsen, Ulrich Matthes, Gyöngyvér Bognár, Diána Kiss, Orsolya Tóth
Premiere: July 3, 2013 – Karlovy Vary Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: August 29, 2014
US Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
It’s among this tumult that János Szász’s darkly poetic movie The Notebook takes place, while explicitly pushing the political machinations aside for a more personal (and more harrowing) portrait of shattered lives. Through the eyes and actions of two nameless young twins (played by bothers László and András Gyémánt) we see the psychological toll of war on history’s invisible outliers. The twins and their parents (Ulrich Matthes and Gyöngyvér Bognár) live what seems to be a middle-class life in Budapest, despite the war. When their father returns home from the front, their household is filled with joy and familial love, but it’s short lived. The war is escalating, the father must immediately return to his infantry, and the young boys are shipped out to live in the hinterlands with a grandmother they have never met. On the eve of his departure, the father gives the twins a notebook to record their experiences, with the adage that “we’re a family even if we are apart.”
That notation may paint pictures of a potentially happy ending where the family, eventually reunited, would recount the boys’ joys and struggles as documented in their notebook, but it’s no more than a red herring for a movie that starts dark and gets progressively darker. Their maternal grandmother (Piroska Molnár) is a brutal beast built like a house with no compassion for her daughter or her grandsons. (The movie casually intones that she killed her husband, but it also implies that she may have done so for good reason.) The pre-adolescent boys are subjugated to manual labor and beatings that they accept as the new norm. Furthermore, they are ostracized in the village for their association with “the witch,” as their grandmother is known. But instead of retreating from the callousness of their new life, they embrace it, finding a certain power together in austerity. They beat each other in order to build a threshold against pain, and when they find a soldier in the woods dying of starvation, they decide to abstain from food in an attempt to conquer death and trick a fate for which they seem destined.
The twins’ sweet faces turn hollow and dark, and their notebook turns into a vehicle for a perverse form of wartime scrapbooking by two young boys whose hearts grow harder with each passing day. Despite their morbidity, they retain some of their humanity, befriending an older girl on equally hard times and sympathizing with the Jewish shopkeeper murdered by the occupying Nazi troops. More important to the trajectory of The Notebook, however, their lives and the people they meet become a snapshot of psychological trauma and its individualized manifestations: a priest willing to take sexual favors in exchange for food and then be extorted for it; a lonely woman who manipulates the prepubescent boys for her own sexual pleasure; a Nazi officer who admires the brooding boys and saves them from a savage interrogation by German soldiers; and of course their grandmother, whose bitter life only better prepared her for the war. Kindness has nearly disappeared and been replaced by cunning and a need for survival.
Szász and cinematographer Christian Berger (Michael Haneke’s regular DP) create a movie rich in visual details. Blanketed with the grungy glow of period antiquity, the screen occasionally breaks from live action to animate the boys’ macabre documentations in the notebook—naive drawings and pragmatic observations spring to life. Szász also has a keen eye for underscoring the eerie idiosyncrasies of his characters, especially the grandmother. By mid-movie the grandmother and the twins (who she refers to only as “bastards”) become co-dependent adversaries, and when the boys decide to forgo eating, she cooks a chicken and proceeds to devour the entire thing in front of them. The focus on the large, fleshy woman as she tears the meat and bones from the carcass is unsettling and reminiscent of a fantastical moment in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, when Chihiro’s parents transform from humans into pigs. Other characters also have an alarming edge to them, creating an ominous atmosphere of menace.
The reunion with their mother, who arrives in a car with a newborn and a strange man at the wheel, cements The Notebook in tragedy, but it’s only the beginning of the downward spiral that will bring the movie to its resolution—the end being a haunting punctuation point to the boys’ mettle. Based on the 1986 novel of the same name by Ágota Kristóf, a Hungarian who would have been about the same age as the twins during WWII, the movie maintains a dramatic aura of authenticity. Plausibility is sometimes sacrificed for symbolic or emotional resonance, but The Notebook does not veer from the bleak emotional path it blazes. For all the fictional WWII films clad with heroes above villains, triumphs over defeats, and hope rising from the ashes of disaster, The Notebook bravely refuses black and white solutions to this historically gray moment, as if to say: no one won, even if they did survive.