The Hungarian World War II film “The Notebook” makes for a grim but utterly fascinating parable, a tale of compassionate, city-bred twins who teach themselves the cruelty they need in order to survive the horrors of war.
The pre-teen boys — whose names we never learn — are inseparable. That’s why their mother (Gyöngyvér Bognár) refuses to split them up even though their father (Ulrich Matthes) says “twins are too conspicuous in wartime.”
So in the last summer of the war, she takes them to the Hungarian countryside, to the border farm where her estranged mother (Piroska Molnárnt) eeks out an existence.
The lads — played by Lazlso and Andras Gyemant — silently witness the hatred the two women have for each other, tearfully watch their mother leave and begin a grueling existence there. The locals call the old lady a witch, and we can believe it. She slaps them, calls the kids “swine, idiots, bastards” and locks them out of the house that first night.
But they learn to do chores and how to handle the old lady. They train themselves to not flinch at pain by having violent slap fights. They learn to steal from a neighbor girl they call “Harelip.” They find a soldier in the woods, and resolve to fast as long as he did, without dying as he does. They practice being deaf and being blind, to sharpen their connection.
They force themselves to forget the mother that they’re sure has forgotten them. And they practice cruelty, on each other, chickens and the old witch.
The boys — who regard grandma, the pedophile SS officer who takes over part of the farm, the amoral priest and other hateful locals with the same emotionless scowl — are a chilling pair. Whatever one thinks of the predilections of boys of that age, we totally buy kids turning into what these lads become in the horrors of war.
The beatings they endure are hard to watch, the deaths they witness are both expected and unexpected. And their behavior is sometimes as illogical as their mother’s.
Everybody thinks granny poisoned granddad. Yet this is who Mom leaves them with?
“The Notebook,” in Hungarian with English subtitles, benefits from a spare, percussive score that underlines the sudden bursts of violence. The effects are simple, obvious and effective. Air raids consist of shadows of planes, the roar of engines and fake-looking bomb blasts.
There is rough justice to this tale, based on an Agota Kristof novel. But there’s just as much injustice, a kind of heartless expediency that only writers who need to illustrate how war hardens children could dream up, and that only children forced to imitate the most recent adult behaviors they witness — carnal, venal, racist or kind — would find acceptable.
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent and sexual content, nudity and language
Cast: László Gyémánt, András Gyémá, Piroska Molnárnt
Credits: Directed by János Szász, screenplay by János Szász, András Szekér and Tom Abrams, based on the Agota Kristof novel . A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 1:52