The most interesting moment of Janos Szasz’s “The Notebook” may come after the end credits roll, as you’re left to imagine what kind of men the two young boys at its center will become. A considerate, deeply disturbing look at the way war can shape a culture, “The Notebook” tells the devastating story of a pair of brothers, essentially abandoned by their parents near the end of World War II in Hungary, who inure themselves against the bitter winters in the Nazi-occupied farming community and the even colder climate in the care of their grandmother, who loathes her daughter that left them with her.
Not signified by names, the 13-year-old twins, played by real-life brothers András and László Gyémánt have had everything else in their lives defined by this single choice, made by a mother who was already falling out with her soldier husband when he leaves for war, giving the boys a journal to document their experiences in his absence so he won’t miss their growth while he’s away. They dutifully comply, yet what they write down reads as a list of horrors, complete with the corners of the pages forming an animated murder when flipped through quickly enough.
Indeed, a small piece of the boys’ humanity dies with each indignity thrown their way by people who are all looking out for their self-interests, from their grandmother to their Nazi occupiers to members of the local church, to the point where they realize they need to protect their own, a process accelerated by the only sympathetic person in their village, a slightly older girl they call Harelip, who teaches them grift and blackmail.
As little emotion as the two boys show as the film wears on, Szasz actually shows less, finding a way to show the dehumanizing experience of living in wartime without ever going beyond the pale. Lensed by frequent Michael Haneke cinematographer Christian Berger, the film visually strikes a balance between intimately acquainting us with these children and showing how they distance themselves from the miserable world around them.
For such strong subject matter, there are naturally rough edges to the film. Both “The Notebook”‘s central conceit of a journal (and its accompanying disenchanted voiceover) and the ever-growing pile of abuses against the boys threaten to dull the senses of the audience as much as the characters, yet Szasz and co-writer András Szekér raise the level of intrigue by looking at the brothers’ plight in multiple dimensions, with the resourcefulness and tolerance to pain they build up in order to survive coming with an inability to ever trust another person again, even perhaps each other.
The Gyémánt brothers remain stoic throughout, an unsettling characteristic at first that proves eerily effective by the film’s end. A supporting cast that includes “The Celebration”‘s Ulrich Thomsen as their Nazi overseer and Piroska Molnár as their bitter grandmother, among others, all make an impression, each suggesting a tortured history to rival that of the brothers, making their choices given the limited options in front of them all the more tragic and driving home the true cost of war in a most unusual way.
“The Notebook” was recently acquired by Sony Pictures Classics for release in the U.S. It will play at the Palm Springs International Film Festival on January 3rd and January 7th at the Annenberg Auditorium. Details can be found here.