Thankful for World Cinema – The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier) (2013)


For an introduction to the concept of Thankful for World Cinema please go here.

The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier) (2013)

After seeing The Notebook, I went and reread my post on The Witman Boys in part because it was the other Janos Szas I had seen to date. I started on that task merely to remind myself of it a bit more (as writing can help fill in the blanks that memory decides to leave). However, what I found as I looked it over was a film more similar to The Notebook than I’d remembered.

The parallels do go beyond merely a shot of two brothers with their face in close proximity to one another. And this is also not to be implied as a slight on either film; quite the contrary, it makes for a very fascinating look at the auterism behind both and also the refinement and the increased power that the newer film has.

The films both have inciting incidents wherein the boys are changed by something beyond their control. In The Witman Boys its the loss of their father. In The Notebook the second World War is raging on and the boys’ parents worry for them and want them protected. The Witman Boys has similar brothers each with a designated name whereas The Notebook is about twins whom are never referred to by name and are credited as “One” and “The Other.” This is an important fact because the idea is to make the twins inextricable from one another and also to make them symbolic.

For as One and The Other move away from a metropolitan area (presumably Budapest) to the Hungarian countryside, they come closer to the horrors of the war and have to learn to cope with life during wartime in their own unique way.

This is where the tonality of the film comes into play. Children coping with the ravages of war is not a new topic. It’s how the topic is dealt with that dictates the tonality of the film, and in certain regards the success of it. Much liked Szas’ prior film this is not going to be an uplifting tale.

Prior to the boys being taken to live with their estranged grandmother their father gives them a notebook to write down “everything” in. Twins have a tendency to stick close together regardless, but when placed in such isolation the tendency to stick by one another, at least to start, is redoubled; and gives them even more incentive to live a microcosmic existence wherein they seek to define morality, strength and learn how they can best cope in the tumult about them with no outside assistance.

That then lays the groundwork for the film which is told through entries the notebook. Voice-over allows episodes of the story to be tied together . While the wondrous visuals created by Christian Berger, this time exploiting color in a parable. The images are usually gorgeous regardless, but stark when they have to be and edited together precisely to render the progression (or degeneration if you prefer) of the boys from wide-eyed innocents to hardened survivors, who frighteningly at times still have a childlike understanding of things, and at others have a cold and calculated, all-too adult outlook.

Not that those things ever seem wrong for they work in a proper progressive order and lead to a gutting finale whose impact is hammered home when you fully realize how and why things occur the way they do.

One of the fascinating things about this film is not only does it find a way, for the most part, to remove the narrative from the frontline but it still keeps the war close by. It tells a dark, haunting tale in one of the 20th Centuries worst moments that goes above and beyond simplistic moralizing about a specific conflict but makes a more sweeping point. A point uttered through visuals and actions and not directly through dialogue, such that you’re still engaged in watching a story, a disturbing one, but a story nonetheless.

Tying this back into the auteurist aspect, so as not to leave it abandoned as an introductory ploy: many directors have told tales that parallel one another. Hitchcock himself said that “self-plagiarism is style.” With regards to World War II, Steven Spielberg has been there quite a few times in very different ways (1941, Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan). It’s not the fact that a director returns to a common ground that matters, but rather what he does when he gets there. What Janos Szas does here is amplify and refine the sensibilities employed in The Witman Boys to this adaptation, sharpening the impact of the story and making it one that can resonate universally. Whereas the prior film was one that could bring one to Hungarian cinema, here he pushes Hungarian cinema out to the world.


Thankful for World Cinema: The Witman Boys

The Witman Boys is an example of subtlety and nuance building slowly to a crescendo through the entirety of a film. It is a film which doesn’t need sensationalism to convey delinquency or to make it seem palpable, and, in fact, possible. The film begins almost immediately with the boys losing their father. This is an inciting incident if I ever saw one. From thereon out the boys start to question everything and their mother becomes even more distant than it seems she was before.

Erno starts to question his older brother, Janos, about death and their bond becomes solidified. Erno shows a need to follow regardless of where Janos leads him. Incidents build themselves up slowl, and things connect to one another in this film as you watch it. Immediately following their father’s death the boys don’t eat, then they leave the dinner table, and soon they are not home at all. They cruelly interact with animals – first they hear of dissection, witness it, and then perform the act. And so on. Everything is in stages most things following the rule of three at least.

What is most effective about the film is that what is most disturbing is usually never seen, but merely implied. An action is begun but not completed, or done off-screen. This is a film, and a rare one, which realizes that the audience participates and can use its imagination to fill in the blanks. Director Janos Szasz saves his visuals for things that are absolutely necessary and that will shock the audience.

The boys, Szabolcs Gergerly and Alpár Fogarasi, are both quite good but what makes the movie work is a compelling and strong actress as the distant mother, which this film has in Maia Morgenstern. Best known for playing Mary in The Passion of the Christ, she is fantastic in this role and really elevates the films level.

Visually the film is compelling from the beginning. Its simple establishing shots, both day and night of the outside of their house, are enhanced by haze and fog. When they are in the cemetery talking to the owl the scenes are quasi-expressionistic in the wide shots and the scenes in the attic are always luminescent and rich.

The only area where the film really suffers is after Janos meets Irén his obsession with her and his recruitment of Erno to join in the obsession dominated the entire film, to its detriment. The obsession is natural but the pace becomes slowed and things get a little bogged down. The climax seems a little delayed.

Still, overall, it is a very good film that you should see should you have a chance. It is a decent primer for Hungarian cinema – a pretty accessible title that still gives some insight on the culture, philosophy and filmmaking aesthetic of the nation.