Despite its unfortunate American title, aligning it with a certain Nicholas Sparks adaptation, János Szász’s The Notebook is a thoroughly provocative WWII screed that almost deliberately goes out of its way to avoid sentimentality or bathos of any sort. That’s an impressive aim given that the film’s protagonists are twin boys, played with convincingly deadened spirits by András and László Gyémánt, whose plight could easily degenerate into banal emotive cues. The film begins during the latter years of the war, as the adolescent Hungarian boys are handed over to their grandmother (Piroska Molnár), known by local villagers as “the witch,” after their mother (Gyöngyvér Bognár) fears for their safety under the threat of impending air raids. The grandmother is stern and vulgar from the moment she takes in the boys, calling them names and assuring them that their mother won’t be coming back for them. While Szász wants her presence to outwardly appear as something from a gothic fairy tale, no one actually transforms into a monster, nor do set pieces attempt to make any particularly grotesque points. Rather than rendering monsters literally á la Pan’s Labyrinth, Szász lets things simmer at a lower boil, with few acts of on-screen violence.
Instead of belaboring historical fact or piling on a clearly defined sense of deterministic dread, the film evolves into a more sensory exploration of wartime atrocities, something the boys become convinced they need to adapt to in order to survive. The film’s title comes from the notebook the twins tell their father they’ll keep, recounting daily events with only one rule: It has to be true. Szász uses this concept as auto-irony, since The Notebook expresses that which can never be absolutely true (dramatic reenactment of catastrophe), made even more ironic by the fact that the twins cannot be held up to a reasonable standard of discerning fact and fiction, which is especially true once the boys start beating each other and starving to make themselves impervious to the impending punishment they anticipate.
Yet there’s little that’s sadistic about Szász’s humanism, which understands that true acts of insight happen through messier, more elusive presentations. That helps to explain an excellent, unusual synth and percussion score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, as well as luminous cinematography from Christian Berger, apparently on loan from Michael Haneke. Even when Szász does opt to delve into the twins’ imagination, such as the corners of their notebook being used as a flip book, it’s to have startling gunshots suddenly ring out, as the perfidies of death loom around every corner.
The Notebook seems dedicated to revising the aesthetics of war films from European art cinema. The premise alone immediately calls to mind Forbidden Games and Come and See, but Szász honors those groundbreaking efforts by attempting a similar kind of daring, varied representation. To that end, The Notebook ends up sharing more in common with Spirit of the Beehive and The Tin Drum, operating as a hybrid between the two, with an ascetic, though tender style navigating the twins through a series of challenges to their bourgeois innocence. That includes a German officer whose interest in the twins is purely pedophilic, a thieving woman with a cleft lip, and a woman who insists upon bathing with the twins, only to end up caressing, washing, and masturbating with one of their feet. Szász addresses potentially lurid concepts head-on, reckoning their peculiarities as inevitable consequences of power gone awry. The Notebook is worthy of its desired brethren by insisting that true terror resides in its mimetic effects, transforming sensibility and desire just as thoroughly as it rips through flesh.