Twin 13-year-old boys endure the ancillary horrors of war in THE NOTEBOOK, a relentlessly grim WWII drama by Hungarian filmmaker János Szász. Shortlisted for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2014 Academy Awards, it’s an admirable piece of craftsmanship if you’ve got the stomach for it. Anyone expecting a remake of the Ryan Gosling weepie will be in for a shock.
In the waning days of the war, the twins are sent from Budapest to live in the countryside with their grandmother. Their father gives them a blank notebook and instructs them to chronicle their time away in words and pictures.
They do so, and the notebook becomes a kind of framing device, with the journal entries read aloud in regular voiceover passages. It’s not a happy story. Grandmaknown locally as “The Witch”is a cruel drunk, forcing the boys to work hard for their supper and locking them out in the cold if they don’t. This is only the beginning of their troubles.
As winter descends, the boys endure abuse not only from their grandmother, but pretty much every adult they come across. A Nazi officer takes up residence in the farmhouse, and the boys are eventually roughed up by both the occupiers and the occupied. A neighbor girl falsely accuses the boys of theft, leading to yet another beating.
In response, they undertake a regimen to toughen themselves. They beat each other unconscious and fast for days. The Nazi officer notices this, with admiration, and asks why. The boys’ reply: “We just want to conquer pain, and cold and hunger.” Soon enough, the twins are learning to give back what they get, torturing and killing bugs and small animals.
The bleakness doesn’t end, but neither does it build, and the film’s observations about the dehumanizing effects of war are presented starkly and episodically. Once the boys make their decision to survive at all costs, no further character development is even attempted. In fact, the two boys are essentially indistinguishable. Played by siblings András and Lászl Gyémánt, the twins are billed in the credits as “One” and “Other.” They think and behave as a single character until the final scenes, which take a hard and baffling turn.
Based on an acclaimed novel by Hungarian writer Agota Kristof, this film is a technically accomplished adaptation. I particularly liked the twilight scenes, when Szász drops the color palette into a desolate range of hellish blacks and charcoal grays. But there’s no structure to this storyterrible things happen, then more terrible things happen, then it’s all over.
This article appeared in print with the headline “The kids aren’t all right.”