The Notebook (2013)

The Notebook is Szász János’s latest movie, and was short listed for the Academy Award Foreign Film section. This fact alone seems to vindicate the Hungarian director's effort, yet, to fully appreciate this great piece, I think it is necessary to touch on the original novel and the historical context in which this story was born.

It is based on renowned Hungarian-French author Ágota Kristóf’s first novel, Le Grand Cahier (translated as The Notebook). It was published in 1986, and immediately established Kristóf as one of the most important contemporary French writers (A short note on Hungarian names: in Hungary, the last name is spelled first, followed by the first name. I respect this custom throughout this article, except for Ágota Kristóf; she is technically a French writer). At the age of 21, she had to leave Hungary for Geneva, when the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact brutally suppressed the anti-Soviet revolt in her home country. She spent the next 5 years working in a factory, until she divorced her husband and started to learn French. Eventually, she established herself as one of the most important voices of contemporary French literature, yet the pain of being permanently in exile and being forced to abandon her mother’s tongue haunted her for the rest of life. Many exiled Hungarians could not take the loneliness and despair, and took their own lives, or went back home and were executed. Writing in Hungarian was never an option; as an exile, her writing would be banned in her country of origin, and publishing in Hungarian outside of her mother land was not a realistic option. Thus, the author made some painful decisions in order not to die.

Seen in this light, it is clear that The Notebook reflects much of the author’s inner life. It is a story about twins (Gyémánt András & Gyémánt László) who are separated from their parents (Bognár Gyöngyvér & Ulrich Matthes, who plyed Josef Goebbels in Downfall) because of the war, and started living with their cruel grandmother (Piroska Molnár) in a village near an extermination camp. They decide to survive at any cost, and begin to train themselves by inflicting all possible pain onto one another, so that they could conquer all the cruelties, brutalities, sufferings, and fear in the world. They prove themselves as excellent students of savagery, and eventually surpass the cruelty of the world around them. And the film, as a stand-alone adoption of the first book of the celebrated trilogy, did a great job of translating Kristóf’s cold and objective prose into a motion picture. One major alteration is the topography: whilst the original story is set in an unspecified region and era, this film is set in World War II.

Upon seeing this film, many critics questioned the degree of savagery exhibited by the twins. Since the story is based on a fiction, why does it have to be so cruel? Couldn’t the twins be more likable? Whilst we are ready to embrace the tragic tale of children in war, such as Grave of the Fireflies, it is hard to follow a story wherein children actively participate in extreme cruelties. That being acknowledged, I think the questions above are the wrong ones. The audience, myself included, most of whom have no first-hand experience of this kind of pain—the pain of surviving war and the suffering of uprootedness, have no right to demand this author, and this director, to care about our emotional equilibrium. We should be asking instead: What did the author, and the director, wish to convey through this story?

I think there are two points to appreciate. Firstly, there is a kind of pain which is so deep that it becomes unrecognisable as an emotion. It destroys the very essence of a person so completely that one ceases to feel anything at all. Whilst this is true, it is also easy to see the thinly veiled rage beneath the stony faces of the twins. The rage against the unfairness of the fate which separated them from their parents. The rage against the cruelty toward them and the few of their friends. The rage against the condition which made it necessary for them to give up everything that was wonderful, such as loving words of their mother. Still, this rage is frozen in their bodies. And, as the audience, we should feel the rage against the history which necessitated such a story to be told.

Secondly, I detect a deep remorse and sadness of the Hungaro-French author upon seeing this film. I recall the same impression that overwhelmed me when I read Kristóf’s work for the first time in the 90s, yet this time, for one reason or another, the sense of guilt and despair cut deeper into my heart. Whilst Kristóf became a successful writer in her adopted country, I cannot help but remembering a remark made by Primo Levi. As a survivor of Auschwitz, he was tormented by one thought: The morally good ones did not survive there. 

And we should feel rage against the condition which make survivors of history feel such pain and remorse, too.

This is by no means an easy film to watch. However, once in a while, a movie like this comes along and tries to convey some important human experience. When it happens, we have no choice but to respond to such a work. The director Szász János did a great job of documenting the cold-bloodedness of the twins’ actions whilst reminding us of their helplessness as children of war by the fantastic treatment of the notebook in which the twins record everything. And, more importantly, this film reminds us that this is not a mere story of the past. As we live in the age of perpetual war, the suffering seen in this film must be felt at a deeply personal level. So, if you are not already suffering this kind of pain personally, I beseech you to spare some time for this important film.