“The Notebook”: Learning the lessons of war only too well

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“The Notebook” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. R, 1:52, three stars out of four.

I’ll admit it, there’s a perverse appeal in the thought of somebody thinking they’re going to the theater of seeing a 10th-anniversary screening of the Ryan Gosling-Rachel McAdams romantic drama and instead seeing this pitiless World War II drama from Hungary.

But let’s be clear. Janos Szasz’s drama is the exact opposite of a Hollywood feel-good film, a punishing, sobering, Gosling-free examination of the toll that war takes even on the most innocent people, even on the margins of the battle.

It’s the last year of the war, and two 13-year-old boys, simply named One and the Other (real-life twins Andras and Laszlo Gyemant) are shipped off to their grandmother’s rural farmhouse for safety. Their father (Ulrich Matthes) gives them a notebook to write down everything that happens to them.

As the war grinds on, and starvation, fear and cruelty come to the little farm town, page after page of the notebook is filled with diary entries, stick-figure drawings of dead bodies, even the occasional totem. The boys’ grandmother is a cruel taskmaster, working them ruthlessly and withholding care packages sent by their mother. But her selfish nature proves a useful teacher in a time of war, as the boys grow hardened and callous by their experiences. They will survive.

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They learn not to trust anyone, not their grandmother, not the local priest who molests children, not the creepy SS officer who proclaims to be their “friend.” The townspeople persecute the local Jews, and when they’re gone, they turn on each other. Szosz films it all with a grimy realism, the darkness of this world both literal and moral.

Eventually, the boys’ parents return to fetch them, and “The Notebook” builds to an ending that’s as inevitable as it is awful. “The Notebook” reminded me very much of “Empire of the Sun,” and Christian Bale’s journey from pampered schoolboy to wily survivor. But that character still retained something of his humanity; the boys in “The Notebook” deliberately stamp their humanity out. And in a world of such barbarity, who is to say they were wrong to do so?

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