It's hardly news that war is not good for children (or anybody else, for that matter), but János Szász's The Notebook casts a particularly cold eye on its effect. During the waning days of World War II in Hungary, 12-year-old twin boys are sent to live with their estranged grandmother in a small village. Villagers call Granny (Piroska Molnár) "the witch," and her abuse is just the beginning of the horrors the boys confront. But together, they train themselves to withstand both physical and emotional deprivation, growing hardened, calculating and semi-feral, well past the point of normal humanity — just as everyone they encounter is physically or morally deformed.
The Notebook is well acted — the twins played by real-life brothers are particularly adept at spooky twinness — and handsomely filmed in an intentionally washed-out palette. But The Notebook is not especially emotionally engaging — it's often like watching a slightly exaggerated fictionalization of a behavioral study, one in which subjects remain intentionally unnamed ("The Mother," "Harelip," "Officer"). Intertwined with this is mordant fabulism in which no sooner do the lads appreciate something or someone, then it is destroyed or perishes. By the final reel, this grim fatality sets up the final "punchline," the inevitable brutal conclusion to their survival strategy.