Thursday, October 2, 2014
Hungary's The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier) is another in a long line of films in which Nazi occupation is viewed through the eyes of children. The Tin Drum and Au revoir les enfants are two that have been reviewed here. Like with those movies, The Notebook is structured in an episodic fashion. Usually, this gives a clearer if somewhat simplified perspective on the horrors of war. But there's a sadistic streak in The Notebook's two central characters, unnamed Twins (László and András Gyémánt), that marks it as far more harrowing film contemplating how exposure to violence only begets more violence.
Their Father (Ulrich Matthes) returns home on leave and suggests to their kind Mother (Gyöngyvér Bognár) that the Twins' inseparability might make them more conspicuous during the war, and they should be separated. Father demands that they keep a journal of their experiences, the titular notebook that becomes less important as the film unfolds but does offer some brief opportunities for Jan Švankmajer-influenced animation depicting bombings and other war atrocities. In what sense Father meant conspicuous is a question that's never answered, though. Nor do we get an answer as to why Mother's solution is to take both children to live with Grandmother (Piroska Molnár) a hateful woman who resents her daughter, calls the innocent boys "bastards," and withhold food from them unless they work her small farm.
The Notebook is full of such inexplicable plot threads, and one gets the sense that, like in The Tin Drum, much of the generic quality of the plot demands and unnamed characters is a way of presenting archetypes that support the idea that this has all happened before and will happen again. Director János Szász is working from a novel (which I haven't read) where presumably the symbolism is easier to parse out. But as depicted onscreen it is only confusing and mysterious. That isn't entirely a bad thing, however.
The freedom from a conventional, unified plot allows us to focus on the essential darkness of The Notebook's individual episodes. When the boys aren't beating each other or whipping themselves with their belts, a strategy they develop to toughen themselves up, they are playing avenging angels fixated on maintaining a certain level of justice in their immediate surroundings, a frustrating endeavor in what is an obviously unjust world. They terrorize Grandmother in retaliation for the way she mistreats them. But they side with her after the Mother who abandoned them returns with a new husband and baby sister to take them back. They enjoy the precocious pleasures of indulging the sexual longings of a lonely maid (Diána Kiss) until they see her egging on the Germans as they escort Jews out of her village to their deaths. When she encourages them to capture one Jew in particular, the only person in the film to have shown the Twins any measure of kindness, the revenge they exact is as swift and brutal as any seen in the war.
The Notebook doesn't necessarily work in a holistic sense. It's just too shaggy a film, leaving one fruitlessly digging for answers that aren't in evidence. But there are enough individual scenes of horror and truly stirring dislocation that one can't really dismiss The Notebook either. Maybe that's ultimately The Notebook's point, that war is itself a lost period in time marked by memorable episodes of terror and a muddle that yields few answers to far too many questions.