How were the Nazi’s able to appreciate art, fine wine and food while systematically and barbarically murdering millions? It’s an impossible question that Hungarian director János Szász’s powerfully plumbs in ‘The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier),’ opening Friday. A World War II film with not one scene of battle, the film instead focuses on the desperate daily struggle of civilians to survive war’s brutality and inhumanity. Deeply disturbing and haunting, the coming-of-age historical drama blends horror and fantasy into a Brothers Grimm-like fairy tale.
Based on the international bestseller ‘Le Grand Cahier’ by Agota Kristof, the film is set in Hungary towards the end of the war. As people in big cities are at the mercy of air raids and death by starvation, a soldier and his wife (Gyöngyver Bognar) make the desperate decision to send their thirteen-year-old twin sons (András and László Gyémánt, both giving powerfully stoic performances) to the countryside where they believe they will have a better chance of surviving the war.
Before sending them away, the father gifts the boys with a large notebook and instructs them to write down everything they experience. Arriving with their mother at their grandmother’s (Piroska Molnár), they are greeted inhospitably. A terrifying presence, their grandmother is known in the village as ‘the Witch’ because she is rumored to have poisoned her husband long ago. Although this is the first time she has set eyes on the twins, and previously did not even know of their existence, she reluctantly agrees to take them in, but warns them they will not eat if they don’t pull their weight. A rampant alcoholic, the grandmother is well fed, laboriously tending to her garden and pigs and chickens. Previously pampered, the twins aren’t quick to help, but as they watch their grandmother chop wood, finally decide they feel sorry for her and begin to pitch in.
Just beyond their property lies the German border, and the boys are forced to sleep in an alcove in the kitchen of the small shack, as an SS officer who wears a strange metal neck brace (Ulrich Thomsen) has taken over the main farmhouse. The officer soon exhibits a creepy tenderness towards the boys, caressing one of their faces as they sleep. While enduring daily hard labor and cruelty from their grandmother who continues to regard them as an unwanted burden and intrusion, the twins begin exercises to harden and desensitize themselves, whipping and punching each other mercilessly. This bizarre behavior is both touching and frightening, and like the German officer, the boys go on to commit acts of both touching kindness and utter barbarity. The ending, like the rest of the film, is truly confounding, but perfectly encapsulates the inhumane and barbaric horrors of war.
‘The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier)’ opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, August 29.
Rated R. In Hungarian with English subtitles. 112 minutes.