János Szász, The Notebook, 2013, HD video, color, sound 104 minutes. László Gyémánt and András Gyémánt (Egyik Iker and Masik Iker). Photo: Christian Berger.

HUNGARIAN DIRECTOR János Szász’s new film is based on Ágota Kristóf’s The Notebook (1986), the first and eeriest novel of a trilogy that follows the grim fortunes of identical twins Claus and Lucas (each name an anagram for the other) during and after World War II. Allegedly for their own safety during foreign occupation (no country is identified), the twins are sent to live with their grandmother—a “witch” suspected of having poisoned her husband. They purchase a notebook to record their experiences, which, in keeping with their uncanny mind-set—one begins a sentence that the other completes—are written in the first-person plural in a prose as affectless as it is artless. Facts and actions, however brutal, are stated bluntly, without apology or embellishment. Determined to harden themselves against wartime conditions, the boys whip, cut, and curse each other to immunize themselves to attacks from local freaks, beginning with grandma. So hardened do they become that when their mother returns to reclaim them, they refuse to leave. They help their grandmother die at her request and promise to look after her farm. When their father returns, he too is rebuffed. In an attempt to escape across the border, he steps on a mine and is killed, which, it is implied, the boys both anticipated and counted on. To try living apart, Claus uses his father’s body to step safely across the border, while Lucas remains behind.

The film, cowritten by Kristóf, is generally faithful to this plotline. But like many films about the horrors of war, the story’s brutality and violence are more in-your-face—as opposed to the novel’s spare, understated style—and images of sadistic behavior are amplified by sound effects, registering every blow. Szász sets the tone with his opening shot: a close-up of the sleeping boys—their faces spooned together as the camera encircles them across the widescreen. It is both touching and unsettling. This is followed by a joyous homecoming scene as the boys embrace their father, returned from the front. Contrary to the novel, the film has the father give them the notebook as a parting gift, which renders both more ironic and more disturbing the final scene, indicating how far apart they have all grown.

The young actors who play the boys—László and András Gyémánt—are visually arresting to be sure, but their shared mind-set is often conveyed via rote gestures that border on the comic. For example, when roused to anger, they assume a creepy stance and look telepathically at each other before walking menacingly toward an object of threat. Apparently, Szász wanted to evoke the kind of demonic behavior reminiscent of such classic sci-fi as Children of the Damned. Or perhaps he intended to simply throw us off, so that even when the boys show a capacity for kindness—as when they bring food and blankets to a dying soldier, or sympathize with a kindly Jewish cobbler—we are still uneasy about just how to read their behavior.

The novel’s hellish vision of humanity is powerful because it is concise and understated, and because readers can supply the historical context. Szász was faced with the task of trying to invest overfamiliar events with a fresh perspective, with understandably mixed results. We can attribute the exaggerated, often grotesque aspects of the grandmother’s behavior and language to the natural distortion of a child’s viewpoint. But other images—e.g., Jewish families being marched off to the camps to the malicious sneers of the townsfolk—don’t entirely escape cliché. Films often show what novels only imply, so when we see the boys planting a grenade in a stove to punish the priest’s housekeeper for an act of cruelty, it’s no surprise that we also see it blow up in her face.

No story of this kind would be complete without sexual predation: The housekeeper, after telling the boys she’s old enough to be their mother, then slips into a tub with them and masturbates under their very noses; nor are we surprised when an officer of the occupying army expresses undisguised erotic interest in the twins. Here, as elsewhere, the film’s strategy to find an equivalent for the novel’s sober perspective is to contrast coarse depictions of human behavior with the blank expressions of our twin protagonists.

Whatever else it may reflect, the film’s hyped-up, quasi-surreal style seems, intentionally or not, to set us up for something the director may or may not have had in the back of his mind, and that no viewer could possibly suspect without having read the two succeeding parts of the trilogy. Without divulging too much, suffice it to say that everything we see in the film, as well as the very premise of the narrative, are upended in the final novel, aptly titled The Third Lie. Whether Szász is planning a sequel (or two), I don’t know, but if so, it would place an entirely different perspective on how one reads this film.

Tony Pipolo

The Notebook opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, August 29.