THE NOTEBOOK (A Nagy Füzet) B-
aka: Le Grand Cahier
Hungary Austria France Germany (110 mi) 2013 ‘Scope d: János Szász
János Szász studied drama and stage direction at the Academy of Theater and Film Arts, and spent four years at the National Theater of Budapest before embarking on a career as a film director, where his second film WOYZECK (1994), which won five major awards at the Hungarian Film Week in Budapest, was the first to be released internationally. Followed by THE WITMAN BOYS (1997), Szász developed a reputation for brilliant cinematography and music, excellent acting, and ultra-bleak subject matter, often set within a historical context. While this film took the top prize at the Karlovy Vary film festival, an atmospheric World War II thriller about two twin boys sent to the Hungarian countryside to wait out the war under the supposed safety of their cruel and embittered grandmother, it never rises to the level of his earlier works. The film is based on the debut novel, Le Grand Cahier, (1986), the first book of a “trilogy of twins” from Hungarian émigré author Agota Kristóf, who left Hungary at the age of 21 and settled in Switzerland where she began writing in French. Translated into 30 different languages, the book caused something of a literary scandal in France, known as the Abbeville case, where a complaint was made by parents against a high school teacher in 2000 for recommending insensitive and “pornographic” literature to his students, where the Minister of Education intervened with a letter of support, as the book was taught in many schools and is considered a classic of contemporary literature.
The 13-year old twins offer a unique vantage point of the war, as families are often divided and shattered by war and death, but these two remain inseparable, speaking with one voice, becoming an almost mythical force of unity and brotherly love. Set in a farmhouse near an unnamed border village, the Nazi’s already occupy the surrounding region, where the military commandant (Ulrich Thomsen) takes a surprising interest in the twins, almost like a fetish, where they become his favorite pets. Known only as one and the other, András and László Gyémánt, their grandmother (Piroska Molnár), who the townspeople call “The Witch,” has her own pet name for them, calling them “little bastards” throughout the entire film, often thinking they are up to no good, city kids that know nothing about hard work. Initially they sit and watch her perform all the chores herself, a large and obese woman, never offering to help, so she doesn’t feed them at night, claiming you have to earn your keep around a farm. Soon she has them doing nearly all the chores while she sits in a rocking chair and smokes, taking evening sips from a bottle of local brew, where she caresses her hidden jewelry while continually cursing the loathsome memory of her dead husband, wishing he had never been born.
Reading entries made into their diary, exactly as they were instructed to do by their father in the opening scenes, everything in it is objective and scientifically precise, showing no feelings whatsoever, where the extensive use of voiceovers comment upon the many graphic horrors that take place offscreen, occasionally resorting to animated imagery, but the narration is always told in a cold and dispassionate manner, which has a way of distancing everything the viewer sees onscreen. While this effect is intentional, avoiding any hint of emotional attachment or sentimentality, it also alienates the audience, preventing any personal identification with any of the characters, and most especially the twins themselves. But they go on studying, where the only book they possess is The Bible, often reading from it at night. Driven by the open hostility of the grandmother, a raging inferno of bitterness and hate, she inflicts every kind of punishment on the twins, insults, beatings, hunger, and cold, but they learn to stand up to her by refusing to cry and withstanding any pain, by asking she beat them some more, as they pride themselves on enduring every inflicted misery. In doing so, they become hardened and embittered creatures themselves, busily preparing themselves for a Darwinian survival, much like the wandering kids in Osterman’s Wolfschildren (Wolfskinder) (2013). While there are only a few other villagers of note, including a kindly Jewish cobbler (János Derzsi) murdered before being sent off to the death camps, a tomboyish thief known as harelip (Orsolya Tóth), also a corrupt church Deacon (Péter Andorai) and his sex-starved maid (Diána Kiss), nearly all are dead by the end of the film. Directed with a grim precision, evoking a bleakness within that matches the utter devastation surrounding them, what’s peculiarly interesting is the degree of defiance displayed by the twins, eliminating weakness from their vocabulary even as they are being brutalized, becoming a chilling portrait of two creepy and fascinating souls warped by a crushing onslaught of inconceivable trauma.