When one thinks of a film called The Notebook, a number of images come to mind most of which involve sexy Canadian movie stars passionately making out in period garb as rain falls around them in slow motion. Ironic then, that in late 2014, a Hungarian drama was released which shares that rather romantic title. Only, instead of a moving paean to young love, this version happens to be a mercilessly brutal tone poem to human suffering – far and away one of the most depressing, depraved and disturbing films of the past decade.
Set during the tail end of World War II, The Notebook concerns a pair of twin boys (László and András Gyémánt) whose well meaning parents (Gyöngyvér Bognar and Ulrich Matthes) send them away to live with their cruel witch of a grandmother (Piroska Molnár) in a tiny rural community on the border of Hungary and Austria. There, the once-innocent brothers are slowly stripped of their humanity by both the horrors of war and the incessant physical and emotional torture heaped upon them by their brutal grandmother and a string of grotesque ne’er-do-wells who inhabit the nearby village.
Per their parents’ request as a way to “keep up their studies,” the boys keep a journal (the titular notebook) chronicling everything that happens to them both in writing and visual collage. Soon, however, the journal evolves into an intense personal code that sees the boys inflicting pain upon themselves in the hopes of numbing their senses and souls. As the war rages on, the twins become increasingly detached and begin to seek deadly retribution against those who fail to meet their ethical standards.
Based on a best-selling book by Agota Kristof, The Notebook is about as far from an easy watch as possible. There is no glimpse of hope offered by theater-director-turned-filmmaker János Szász, who unblinkingly drags his audience to the absolute depths of pain and misery without offering even a chance of catharsis. In this manner, the film spits in the face of WWII drama conventions, seeking not to send a message about the power of perseverance nor to jerk tears via gift-shop sentimentality.
Whether one finds it pleasant or not, though, this is an undeniably powerful piece of cinema. Every meaningful connection the boys make is shattered by violence, and every time we think they have found their way out, they just get mired further. It would be easy to write the film off as pure nihilism, and yet, Szász still manages to dredge empathy for the wounded innocents while still challenging our concept of what it means to be a victim in wartime.
The performances on display are utterly sublime, with special kudos owed to Molnár, whose bellowing, spiteful turn as Grandmother makes for some truly gut-wrenching moments, as well as Ulrich Thomsen, who imbues the part of a pedophilic Nazi officer with incongruous charm. In addition, the stark, Italian-neorealist-influenced cinematography does wonders in separating this film from the maudlin, dewy aesthetics of most contemporary WWII films. The sparse, moaning score by Manuel Laval adds to the hellish mise-en-scène, punctuating each fresh horror with a sharp, percussive wood drum or a bubbling sea of Dante-esque humming voices.
Overall, The Notebook couldn’t be farther from the 2004 Nicholas Sparks adaptation for which it will most likely be confused. Whereas that film, which was also set during WWII, was about the lengths people will go to keep things together, this one is about the dark places they’ll venture once everything falls apart. By choosing existential dread over maudlin moralism, this grim Notebook manages to hit us right in the “feels” without ever pandering or oversimplifying its subject.
The Notebook is available for purchase now on ITunes.