The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier)
WWII chiller illuminates the art of survival
The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier) (2014)
Directed by János Szász
Cast: Lászlo Gyémánt, András Gyémánt, Piroska Molnár
Let's just get this out of the way before folks become confused. This isn't the 2004 Nicholas Sparks sap-fest that featured abysmal performances by Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams. No, this is a newer, more involved feature that delves into the effects of war, or more importantly, the perception of war by a pair of twin youngsters who are forced to live with their “witch” grandmother in a tiny Hungarian town on the border of Germany.
This WWII drama, helmed by János Szász (Opium: Diary of a Madwoman, 1994’s Woyzeck), begins in 1944. But don't expect this to be an intricate history lesson that highlights the Holocaust, for the word “Nazi” isn't even uttered. Instead, the director makes this an insular affair, during which two boys (played by real-life brothers Lászlo and András Gyémánt) who reside in an unnamed part of Hungary, are forced to abandon everything they know before moving in with ol' granny (played by veteran Hungarian actress Piroska Molnár, Fateless, The Pillars of the Earth). Right away, the boys are instructed by their mother to “survive,” meaning that their stay is anything but a vacation. And survive, they must.
Armed with a notebook their father instructed them to write about everything in, the brothers' predicament features storytelling with visceral visuals that show the boys' widespread imagination as they adapt to a life where they literally have to work for their food. If they don't help out with chores, their grandmother shuts them out of the house with no dinner. It's clear from the get-go that in order to survive, they have to harden their shells. So, along with reading the Bible and maintaining their studies (as instructed by their mother), they take to beating each other to learn to withstand pain. They even starve themselves on purpose for days to “conquer” hunger.
As the story progresses, we find out more about the tiny village, but nothing about the war. Other than the fact that a German officer lives in the other house on the grandmother's property, there's little in the way for historical context. But if you think this film is an anti-Nazi manifesto, it's anything but. Instead, the film paints said German soldier as the boys' main cheerleader after he approves of their self-inflicted training. Other notable characters that fall within the twins' radar are Harelip, the poor girl who lives next door and looks after her deaf and blind mother, a shoemaker who takes a shine to the boys and a woman with questionable morals who works for the Deacon.
First, they master pain. Next, they master hunger. Then, they master being able to move without vision or hearing.
Each person who flows within the boys' periphery merely serves as a supporting fragment in their already distorted vision. If the lack of information is bothersome, take into consideration that the characters don't have names. The twins are simply the “Twins,” or “Bastards,” as their grandmother takes to calling them. Grandma is simply “Grandmother,” and so on. But what makes this film so compelling is its focus on the boys' perspective. Their knowledge of the war is limited only to what a 13-year-old could gather under the circumstances. And the closest they ever come to the war is a couple of air strikes that further urge them to maintain their training, which happens in stages.
First, they master pain. Next, they master hunger. Then, they master being able to move without vision or hearing. Another thing to note is that despite their horrific situation (and it is horrific), the boys lean on each other. They're never filmed separately, always together. Their progressive downfall happens as a pair, as they succumb to such dire straits, but always with one to keep the other sane. They go from carrying smiling faces to being hardened adolescents in the midst of a disjointed fail-safe. Having been dropped off to survive WWII, they now have to survive everything else. And the film's development is a slow, chilling rumination of the psychology of war. How even when it's not in direct proximity (though, in their case, a concentration camp lies right over the border), its effect is still felt. Even when bombs aren't constantly being dropped, the chill of death remains in the air.
Fans of historical drama may find favor within the setting, costumes and dismal visuals. The haunting score also creates a palpable tension that makes viewing this film an experience in and of itself. The performances are top-notch, and the cinematography, mixed with cartoon-like montages that highlight the boys' ages and naïveté, is riveting. It should be noted, however, that viewers won't come away from this film with the ease of having watched lighter fare like the latest fall rom-com. This is the type of film that stays with you, makes you think. Like the personalities on screen, it wouldn't be completely unbelievable to say you might experience a transformation. Much like the transformation of the film’s two main characters, who start off as carefree children and come out on the other side as changed men, like soldiers coming home from battle. Like any trying experience, something is always learned. What that is depends entirely on the person watching.