Be warned: There is barely a glimmer of hope or affirmation in The Notebook, an unnerving Hungarian drama about the dreadful experiences of a pair of twins at the end of World War II. It’s a nightmare fairy tale that can be very difficult to watch.
The characters have no names, and the structure is simple: a sequence of events that grow more chilling as the central figures become increasingly dehumanized.
The story begins deceptively in a comfortable urban home, as the parents of twin 13-year-olds (András and László Gyémánt), fearing for the boys’ safety, send them to live on their grandmother’s distant farm. The old lady (Piroska Molnár) is a nasty, booze-addled piece of work, contemptuous of the boys’ beloved mother (Gyöngyvér Bognár) and abusive toward the twins — she beats them, locks them out of the house and forces them to work hard for meager rations.
The boys console themselves by reading the Bible, and, following an earlier suggestion of their father, a soldier, record their experiences in a notebook in a style that emphasizes objectivity over emotion. (The film is based on Agota Kristof’s well-respected, 1986 French-language novel Le Grand Cahier.) Responding to the absurdity and cruelty of wartime in a place where the villagers seem little better than the German occupiers, the twins undertake a harrowing regimen.
To survive, they decide, they need to exterminate any traces of softness and sentiment: They beat each other with their fists, cut themselves with knives, burn their mother’s letters, starve themselves for days, no flinching or whimpering allowed. It’s heartbreaking to watch the transition as their moral compass goes badly awry.
They descend into the kind of savagery that surrounds them — which makes the frequent close-ups of them staring at the camera all the more distressing. They are taught to steal by an impoverished young woman known as Harelip; a German officer in a neck brace shows a decidedly unwholesome concern for their welfare; and a beautiful woman who seems to want to nurture them proves to be far from motherly.
There’s one flicker of goodness here, as the boys are befriended by a Jewish shopkeeper, but this plot thread does not end well — just as the oncoming Russian troops hardly prove to be liberators.
By the end, you may feel exhausted by the parade of horrors. But veteran Hungarian director János Szász has the courage of his convictions, refusing to provide breathing room or false optimism. Neither has a place in a parable of innocence destroyed — and destroyed with the connivance of those who were, initially, victims. Szász isn’t insisting that this is the whole of life, just a forceful depiction of its the dark side.
Cast: András Gyémánt, László Gyémánt, Piroska Molnár, Gyöngyvér Bognár.
Director: János Szász.
Screenwriter: András Szekér.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 112 minutes. Violence, sexual situations, nudity, strong adult themes. In Hungarian with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade only: Tower; in Palm Beach: Shadowood.