Adapted from the novel by Agota Kristof (sharing a screenwriter credit) and set in Nazi-occupied Hungary, the film is a coming-of-age fable whose characters remain nameless as if embodying big-picture truths. The opening image features side-by-side 13-year-old identical twins who appear joined at the soul.
The brothers (Laszlo Gyemant and Andras Gyemant) have grown up in urban comfort, but with air strikes now occurring overhead, their mother (Gyongyver Bognar) and soldier father (Ulrich Matthes) fear for their safety. The mother transports them to a country village to stay with their grandmother (Piroska Molnar). It’s a terrible place.
The grandmother, an alcoholic “witch,” beats the boys, calls them “bastards,” and forces them to do grueling chores before she will feed them.
The nearby villagers, too, are nasty sorts. The bright spot is a thieving girl the boys call Harelip (Orsolya Toth). The adults include a Nazi officer (Ulrich Thomsen), a hypocritical deacon (Peter Andorai), and an anti-Semitic maid (Diana Kiss), each with a sexually predatory aspect.
To survive, the boys make themselves tough. They brutalize each other and go hungry. They behave ruthlessly, emulating adults around them and committing acts of cruelty. Their methods include blackmail, extreme violence and murder.
Obviously, this “Notebook,” whose title comes from a journal the father gives the boys, is not a 10th-anniversary reissue of a certain weepie. Working from a zero-sentimentality tonal palette, Szasz, whose credits include “Woyzeck,” delivers bold, powerful cinema. The story transpires compellingly and unpredictably.
The problem is that the film hits merely hard, not deep. Szasz shocks but rarely stirs viewers.
The film doesn’t satisfy on the level of Nazi-era-set child-survival stories such as “Lore” or the excellent Hungarian drama “Fateless.” Nor does it compare with Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon,” whose pre-Nazi children chillingly demonstrated the malignant effects of adult cruelty.
With the exception of a Jewish shoemaker, who exists largely as a device whose fate will trigger an act of revenge, the adults are one-dimensionally awful. The grandmother, who gluttonously devours a roasted chicken in front of the hungry boys, is just a step from a fairy-tale character.
More impressively, the film’s twin leads give natural performances. It is often a mystery how a director inspires child actors to convincingly portray how something off-the-map horrifying has happened to them, but the pair achieves that.
Starring Lazlo Gyemant, Andras Gyemant, Piroska Molnar, Ulrich Thomsen
Written by Andras Szeker, Janos Szasz, Agota Kristof
Directed by Janos Szasz
Running time 1 hour, 44 minutes