Survival and the hardships of war are explored from a very specific and thought-provoking perspective in János Szász’ “The Notebook.” A pair of twins in Hungary during World War II is left to fend for themselves when their parents must move away escaping prosecution. Their hateful grandmother, who is supposed to care for them, forces them to work tirelessly and shows no compassion despite their young age. Progressively, they desensitize themselves by enduring pain, starvation and getting rid of any memories from their past life, including their mother. Szász’ savagely beautiful film delivers bleakness enhance with a touch of fantasy, but always aware of the dark world in which his characters inhabit. Heartbreakingly poetic and visually elegant, “The Notebook,” based on Agota Kristof’s novel Le grand cahier, is one of the most daring European films of the year. The film was Hungary’s Official Oscar Submission last year and it made it to the final 9-film-shortli out of 76 titles submitted.
Szász kindly talked to us from Hungary about the performances in his film, the origin story of the project, and the hint of hope underneath the darkness
Carlos Aguilar: Tell me about the origin of the project, where you interested in the novel beforehand?
János Szász: “The Notebook” is a very old story. 15 years ago, the first time I read the book I fell in love with it and I immediately wanted to take the rights, everyone laughed at me for that. Getting the rights was very difficult because they were taken for 15 years, and many directors wanted to make it into a movie. I had made the short “The Witman Boys,” which is also a story about two very young souls, in a way I wanted to make another film in this genre. I was in the queue to get the rights.
Finally, approximately four or five years ago I had the fortune of meeting the author Agota Kristof. Every character in the novel comes from memories of her life. In 1956, during the anti-communist revolution, she got pregnant. She and her family had to leave Hungary. She didn’t want to leave because she loved this country. It was a very dark time in her life, because she didn’t want to be a deserter, as she would say. She died two years before we began to shoot the film. She was a wonderful person. We became very close. She was someone who could not lie. She didn’t want to lie about her life. She didn’t want to lie about how hard it was for her and her brothers. She told me it was very painful to write this book.
Aguilar: Both twins, László Gyémánt and András Gyémánt, deliver marvelous performances. They are unflinching and naturalistic throughout. Was it a difficult task for you to elicit this from the young boys?
János Szász: To tell you the truth, it was really easy [Laughs]. We found these two kids in a very small village in the south of Hungary living in poverty. They had been living a life that was not very pleasant. They lived with their grandmother and they had no money. They, despite being children, had to work everyday. When I visited them I started telling them about the war and how hard life is, etc. They were just laughing at my face. They told me, “Janos, we know exactly how hard life is.” They had their own similar experiences, so what you feel when you see them in the film comes from their past. They were able to base the story on those experiences. For the scenes where they beat each other, we talked to Andras, and it was clear that this sort of thing has happened in their lives.
There were difficulties at times. Imagine two boys from the countryside who suddenly find themselves shooting a film. They have their own van, everybody loves them, but it’s only for 50 days of shooting. Suddenly it stops, and it was hard for them. We couldn’t take them back to where we found them like if they were props. I’m very happy that we still have a very good relationship and to know that they are in a college in Budapest. They have a chance to try to have a better life now. On set, what was difficult was that, even though their presence is strong, they were two amateurs. All the other actors are professionals, and it was hard for them to achieve this kind of simplicity. As a director, my job was to help those actors be simple, not to do much.
Aguilar: The film has a specific visuals aesthetic. It is realist, but also ventures into a sort of dark fairytale. How did you achieve this particular atmosphere?
János Szász: Christian Berger was our cinematographer. He is great. He has worked in films like “The White Ribbon.” First off, this is an adaptation, and I, Janos, as the one adapting, have to think about a lot of things. In the book there are no names for the boys and the voice is always in plural, “we decided” or “we did…” I told Christian that it was very important to find this “We.” Therefore, we chose to shoot the film in cinemascope and to always have these two guys together in every frame.
They are always together, but at the end we notice this erosion in their relationship. I did think of it as a dark fairytale, but it was very hard to make a war movie without showing war. There is abuse and violence, but I think my intention to make a cold fairytale came across. I didn’t want to get too close to things, I wanted visual distance, that’s why I was knocking on Christian’s door. I wanted to find someone who doesn’t want to get too close, someone who doesn’t want to provoke your emotions. He is a master at keeping that distance, while still taking the audience close to the story.
Aguilar: The notebook in the story seems to represent an alternative reality for these two boys. What are your though on the role it plays?
János Szász: The notebook is the only place where they are honest. It is like a priest, like a confessional for these two kids. It is a place for fantasy, that’s why I decided not to use only the words but to bring the notebook to life. It is also a very secretive tunnel into the truth. If you are Catholic, every Sunday you’d go to church and talk to the priest, but in the story the priest is not a person. This fairytale territory represents freedom.
Aguilar: In order to survive the twins desensitize themselves, they try to forget their loved ones to become stronger. Where you ever concerned of how bleak or how dark you could make the film? I think there is a compelling sense of unyielding courage to your approach.
János Szász: I think the novel is much more darker. For me it is not that dark because it is the story about two boys who are taken to live with their unknown grandmother. The mother tells them they must continue learning, but that above all they must survive. These are two good boys, and they listen to their mother. They will continue learning, but the subject has changed, the subject now is the war. They are learning how to survive it. They are gaining skills, but even if they come out physically alive, do they survive the war mentally? They need to be strong, they need to be able not to eat for days, and they need to forget about emotions. To have emotions during the war would be like committing suicide for them. They have a new moral code, which during the war is not so black and white. You can’t really judge their actions towards other people. Even with their grandmother, there is hatred there, but under the skin of that hatred one can see a special type of love. The bleakness is not so black and white.
Aguilar: Despite all the events and situations these two boys must go through, do you think there is a place for hope in their journey?
János Szász: Personally I think there is a lot of hope in the story. They still preserve a certain kind of innocence. They have gone through terrible things, but they had no choice but to do those things. Eventually, they must part and separate, but this represents hope. This is their only hope. One of them goes west, just like the author Agota Kristof, and the other stays in Hungary. This is their hope for a new life. You must know that this based on the first book of a tetralogy. In the second part they return and they reconnect.
"The Notebook" opens today in NYC at the Quad Cinema and in L.A. at the Laemmle Royal in Santa Monica