Arts Review, Movies
János Szász, dir. & co-script w/Andras Szeker & Agota Kristof
Based on Kristof’s novel of the same name
Starring: András Gyémánt (One), László Gyémánt (Other), Gyöngyvér Bognár (Mother), Piroska Molnár (Grandmother), Ulrich Thomsen (Officer), Orsolya Tóth (Harelip), Ulrich Matthes (Father)
“War is hell,” famously said American Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman and the creators of the Hungarian film The Notebook would no doubt agree. In this case, the hell on earth is Hungary towards the end of World War Two. Hitler’s Nazis seized Hungary, officially an ally, in the spring of 1944, causing the almost immediate imprisonment and execution of over 450,000 Jews and 28,000 Roma, who had been previously protected by the Hungarian Fascists.
That’s the background of The Notebook, which details what happened to a middle class Christian family, who had their lives upturned during that terrible final year of the war. Agota Kristof’s best selling novel, which she adapted with director János Szász and Andras Szeker, is written as a fable or as a modern Grimm fairy tale. No one has names. When Father is conscripted back into the army, Mother decides to flee Budapest and leave her pre-teen twin boys with her mother, who lives in the countryside.
It turns out that Mother and Grandmother had a huge falling-out when Grandfather died under mysterious circumstances. The villagers all denounce Grandmother as a witch and, at first, she is a fiercely unlikeable character, who calls the twins “bastards,” and makes them do back-breaking work in order to get food and board. Their father had given the boys a notebook with instructions to fill it with what they experience while he’s away. What they find out about life is shocking and brutal.
From the neighbour’s daughter Harelip, they learn how to steal. From a lascivious maid and a corrupt priest, they learn about sex and betrayal. After a while, Grandmother softens somewhat to the boys; the farm is the one place in which they feel safe.
The boys realise that the only way to survive in this hostile environment is to become unfeeling and inhuman. They beat each other up and starve for days on end. The boys burn pictures of their mother; they love her and that’s an impossible emotion in this time and place.
The boys have only two friends: a Nazi officer, who is likely a deviant, but admires the boys’ stoical attitude and a Jewish shoemaker, who treats them kindly. Eventually, they avenge the Jew’s murder and are protected by the Nazi.
By the film’s end, the boys have become toughened for the years ahead, which in Eastern Europe, were hardly pretty ones.
The Notebook is an impressive achievement—well acted, in a past, which is impeccably evoked. It won the Crystal Globe (top prize) at the 2013 Karlovy Vary Film Festival and has gone on to play top festivals including TIFF.
Is it a film I can recommend? Well, yes, but with this proviso: it’s hardly a date movie. You have to be ready to watch a grim “sentimental educational” to enjoy The Notebook.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical 96.3 FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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