The faces of the adolescent twin boy protagonists in The Notebook, played by real-life identical siblings László and András Gyémánt, are powerfully disconcerting. Not so much from their expressions, which are the very definition of deadpan, but because of a smoldering ferocity in their eyes. The boys seem feral, untamed, unpredictable. Combine those gazes with the quiet, wary way they move through a setting — they don’t relate to the other characters so much as stalk them — and the two twelve-year-old Hungarians make an unforgettable focal point for a sweaty-palms melodrama. One look at them and we’re certain something really horrible is about to happen.
That something horrible is World War II. The boys, Egyik and Masik, whose father is in the army, are just reaching puberty when they are dropped off by their distressed mother (Gyöngyvér Bognár) at their grandmother’s country cottage in 1944, at the height of the war. The old grandmother (Piroská Molnár), aka The Witch, is mean and abusive, perhaps to match the desperate mood of the Hungarian government, which had sided with Nazi Germany and is now sinking slowly into defeat. Through the eyes of director János Szász and author Agota Kristof (her 1986 French-language novel is adapted by Szász, Tom Abrams, and András Szekér), the twins’ coming of age coincides with the destruction of Europe. It doesn’t take them long to get in on the action.
In the best picaresque tradition, the brothers encounter a succession of bizarre individuals on the farm and in the nearby village. At night, grandmother guzzles her homemade vodka and counts the trinkets in her treasure chest while the boys peek from the attic. A German SS officer (Ulrich Thomsen) from the local concentration camp has taken up residence in the main house on her property; the twins hold an ominous fascination with him. A young woman with a cleft palate (Orsolya Tóth) visits from a neighboring farm; she’s sexually curious about the brothers, as is a voluptuous red-haired woman in the town. The boys happen upon a dying soldier in the snowy woods. And in what is fast becoming a cliché for European films, there’s a lecherous priest to be dealt with. Through all these potentially emotionally disruptive encounters, the twins display no emotion whatsoever. If we were searching for a spark of ordinary human warmth from them, we search in vain. They’re initially innocent, yes, and vulnerable, but after taking a few beatings they learn to kill and become good at it. Their only other mission, aside from toughening themselves for survival, is the meticulous preparation of a hand-lettered, home-illustrated notebook, the chronicle of their unhappy lives. The book’s graphics are quite expressive compared to the twins’ blank faces, but we don’t learn much.
Hungarian director Szász (Opium: Diary of a Madwoman) handles these wild children with tongs, observing their antics almost as dispassionately as the boys themselves size up their adversaries. Although nominally a Holocaust film, The Notebook only spends a couple of short scenes on the plight of deported Jews from the district. A Jewish shoemaker in the village is practically the only person who shows any kindness to the brothers. Out of pity, he gives them each a first-class pair of boots. The filmmaker seems more interested in the horrors of war than in any awakening awareness the twins might experience. We could easily imagine them growing up to be cruel police in the new communist Hungary.
This chilly piece of work is beautiful to look at and listen to, with captivating images by cinematographer Christian Berger (The White Ribbon) and Johann Johannsson’s nerve-jangling music score. But the feeling of emptiness remains, as if the toughened-up twins at the center of the maelstrom were meant to only reflect the general chaos, not necessarily to take up arms against it or move past it. Our guided trip to historical hell is vivid and disturbing, but we never lose the sense that we’re only strangers passing through.