I was never much of a fairy-tales kid. Or a fan of anything that was slightly gorier than Maisy books. I had to leave the movie theater halfway through “Babe” (because the farmer points a gun at Babe, the pig), “Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter” (because one character shows up with a cut on his forehead after being abducted) and “The Robber Hotzenplotz” (I don’t remember what required my sudden departure, but I still remember the weeks of nightmares that followed).
As for fairy tales, even though the stories collected by the Grimm brothers were considered part of our German-speaking heritage when I was growing up in Austria, I never understood why one would invent evil characters such as ugly witches, grandmother-eating wolves or poison-loving stepmothers. Why not have alternate realities that are better than the real world?
So naturally I was apprehensive when I went to see “The Notebook,” a film adaptation of the best-seller by Agota Kristof that was publicized as a “wartime coming-of-age drama remodeled as a Brothers Grimm-like fairy tale.” The Hungarian/German/French production seemed to have all the ingredients that would make nightmares inevitable: It is set at the end of World War II in Hungary, which meant Nazi or Arrow Cross brutality. It is the story of twin boys (Laszlo and Andras Gyemant) who are separated from their parents; it is unclear if there will ever be a reunion. The boys get to stay with their grandmother (Piroska Molnar), who is called “the witch” in her small village — and for good reasons: She is rumored to have poisoned her husband, and it is known that she abuses her grandsons.
Before the boys’ departure, the father (Ulrich Matthes) gives them an empty notebook in which they document their experiences. And what they write about in the notebook is first class-nightmare material: They get beaten, and are left to sleep outside in the cold. They encounter a masochistic gay Nazi officer and the priest’s housekeeper, both of whose actions border on sexual abuse. They watch Jews being brutally herded out of the town. They watch friends and family members die.
In the film, cruelty is omnipresent, and yet it remains distant. On several occasions I closed my eyes in order to avoid seeing gore, but it turns out I didn’t have to: Director Janos Szasz chose to show only selected scenes of violence.
Instead, something far more subtle represents the most chilling aspect of the film, and closing my eyes before it happened would have prevented me from watching just about all 104 minutes of it: It’s how the boys react to the unpredictable, inhumane world around them by hardening their bodies and minds. They hurt and insult each other, ignore love and learn how to steal, blackmail and, eventually, kill. The boys’ facial expressions remain stoic throughout, and their movements appear synchronized at times, as if one were the shadow of the other.
The boys’ piercing gazes seemed to follow me as I left the cinema. I couldn’t empathize with them, so I just wanted the image to leave my mind. I didn’t want them to appear in my nightmares. I wondered if that was what war did to children.
Anna Goldenberg is the Forward’s arts and culture fellow.