One of the many horrific things that war creates is the inhumane way some of us react to it. Ordinary, everyday, descent people can suddenly develop ways and manners that surprise even them. And it’s not simply a matter of how we might change if we pick up a gun. It’s something else; something much deeper and darker that if given the opportunity could manifest itself in monstrous ways we may later never want to acknowledge.
The Hungarian film The Notebook is a devastating story of survival during the worst of times. It’s not the kind of survival that makes those involved ration their food and water or huddle together during the winter to keep warm – though that does happen – it’s the mental and spiritual kind; and in the case of the two leading characters, the physical.
It’s August, 1944. War has ravaged Europe for almost five years, yet for one particular Hungarian family, from the way things appear in the opening moments, the fighting has left them relatively unscathed. But things are changing. Reality has finally arrived and the war is on their door step. Dad is about to head out to battle and mom needs to find a place to keep her two thirteen year old boys safe until things change.
Out of desperation, the twins are left to the care of their grandmother whose country house sits near the border. Before the family separation, dad hands his boys a notebook and tells them to write down their thoughts and feelings everyday, like a diary. “I want to know everything,” dad tells them. “Everything.”
The grandmother is a mean alcoholic who spends her nights drunk and shouting obscenities at pictures of her long dead husband. The boys call her grandmother, she calls them bastards. It’s after the twins are wrongly accused of theft from the house and cruelly beaten by the grandmother that the boys embark on a system meant to protect them from the hardships they know they are about to endure until their parents return; they beat each other to get used to the pain; they starve themselves for days to get used to the hunger, and they cut themselves off emotionally from everyone and everything around them in order to feel unaffected by the cruelties they see around them.
Even though it will be less than a year when the war is done and the Germans are gone, the twins witness a lot throughout the winter and into the new year. Among the worst of the atrocities is seeing not only German soldiers rounding up the local Jews and herding them off like cattle, but witnessing how their non-Jewish neighbors react. “Don’t forget the shoemaker,” shouts one young woman from her window to the soldiers, then taunts the Jews with bread only to pull it back and laugh when one reaches out. Up until that moment, the twins had remained passive; silently watching but doing nothing. Seeing what happens to the friendly old shoemaker changes them. They extract revenge on the woman responsible.
There are startling images throughout. When the local village is affected by an allied bomb raid, we don’t see the overhead planes, we see the shadows cast on the streets below as villagers run for cover. It’s very effective.
Perhaps a drawback to the foreign language film is not being able to read the diary. The camera scans the pages of the notebook as it views the entries, selecting key sentences here and there, but unless there’s a subtitle, English language viewers can’t always tell what the boys have written. We can only assume what they may have entered by the look of some of the accompanying diagrams. The most disturbing are the black and white stick figures drawn in the corner of the pages that appear to move, like a child’s flip book. One is of a German soldier shooting a helpless victim. The boys add a touch of red on some of the pages to indicate the splashing of the stick figure’s blood.
The conclusion is not what you might expect. The family reunion doesn’t happen in the way you might want and the arrival of the liberators and what follows is just as horrific as the occupation. By the end, we’ve witnessed what the boys have witnessed and have lived through the actions that caused the twins to shut themselves off to an unfeeling and merciless level. Artistically, The Notebook, directed by János Szász, is a considerable achievement, but it’s also emotionally draining in the way you might feel after having been punished. When you leave you’re both haunted and numbed. Unless you’re a student of film, you won’t want to see The Notebook again.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 109 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)