The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier) Dir. János Szász

[Sony Pictures Classics; 2014]

Styles: drama, war
Others: Au Revoir Les Enfants, Broken Silence, I Stand Alone

Sometimes a work of art is so brutal and harsh, so visceral, that I wish that I could unsee it. The weight of Gaspar Noé’s I Stand Alone, for instance, was heavy and demoralizing to bear; the idealistic stridency of Derrick Jensen’s radical environmentalist manifesto Endgame called nearly all of my life routines into mind-boggling question. More than anything, though, Jerzy Kosiński’s The Painted Bird has acted as the archetype in my adult life for the work of art that is as haunting and painful as it is enriching, a cold and black metallic mirror reflecting mankind’s remarkable propensity for inflicting violence on its own.

Well, watch out, Kosiński (or whoever actually wrote that book): János Szász’s The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier) is gunning for your top spot. Like The Painted Bird, The Notebook filters World War II’s ravages through the eyes of children, but where the former peers into man’s inhumanity to man with at least some innocence intact, the latter brutalizes the twins who are the film’s closest thing to protagonists until they are forced to tap into something like the Nietzschean Will to Power just to survive. The results are ugly and indelible.

The film starts in an idyllic Budapest home seemingly untouched by the war. Our protagonist twins (László and András Gyémánt) are compulsive eavesdroppers and attached to an unusual degree even for twins, but are otherwise well-adjusted. After their father (Ulrich Matthes) returns briefly home from combat, though, their descent begins. Before returning to the fray, the father gives his sons the titular notebook and instructs them to write down everything that happens to them.

To protect the twins, their mother (Gyöngyvér Bognár) sends them off to hide in the country with her estranged mother (Piroska Molnár), an exaggerated cartoon witch who calls the twins “bastards” and is believed to have poisoned their grandfather. In their new environs, they encounter thievery, murder, starvation, and more than one pederast Nazi. One begins to think that the twins may have been better off in Budapest or, really, dead.

None of the characters in The Notebook have proper names, only titles — the aforementioned twins are known only as “One” and “Other” — and the dehumanization inherent in this conceit is palpable. In the proverbial fog of war, humanity is meat: One and Other, recognizing that they’ll never survive their plight without overcoming their youthful pampering, begin to whip each other with belts to overcome their sensitivity to pain, later moving on to the brutal murder of animals to desensitize themselves to death. Remains of these horrific scenes are then ceremoniously glued into the notebook. One and Other come out of the tail end of their ordeal more cold and calculating than most soldiers. They’re either barely human, or as human as possible.

It’s hard to know what to make of all this. Is this a condemnation of what war does to the human spirit, or is it an objectivist triumph of individual will over common weakness? As terrifying as both scenarios are in their way, it is to The Notebook’s credit that it doesn’t hammer you over the head with the answer, even if it does hammer you with just about everything else. I’ll be mulling it all over for some time to come. Frankly, I don’t seem to have a choice.

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