The end of the First World War brought about the dismantling of both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires as well as the peace settlement that made possible both the rise of the Nazis and the chaotic creation of the modern Middle East. With the rather ironic conjunction of the latest outbreaks of violence in the Middle East and the centenary of the First World War, it is impossible not to note that two vastly different films about the Shoah and its aftermath are opening on Aug. 29 at the same multiplex. Each film came from one of the First World War’s biggest losers. A drama released in its home country in 2013, “Le Grand Cahier (The Notebook),” directed by János Szász from the novel by Agota Kristof, was made in Hungary; the new documentary “Shadows from My Past” is the work of Gita Kaufman, an Austrian Jew who escaped the Nazis as a child, and her husband and co-director Curt Kaufman, and focuses specifically on the Jewish-Austrian experience.
Kristof herself is also an ex-pat, uprooted at age 11 by the catastrophic failure of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Since then she has lived and written in France. Interestingly, the novel from which the new film is drawn does not specify the country or period in which it is set; it just takes place in wartime, in a nation ruled by an occupying army of unspecified nationality. In their adaptation, however, Szász, Kristof and Andras Szekér have chosen to set the film emphatically in the latter stages of WWII, with the Nazis at long last invading Hungary to encourage the native Fascist government to step up compliance with the murder of European Jewry. By doing so, they have thrown down a gauntlet.
At the center of the film are a pair of 13-year-old identical twins, Egyik (László Gyémánt) and Masik (András Gyémánt). Their father is away in the Hungarian army, and as the war approaches Budapest, the boys’ mother decides to leave them in the care of her own mother (Piroska Molnár), a splendidly foul-mouthed elderly widow and farmer, whose neighbors refer to her as “the witch.” Reluctantly at first, then doggedly, the boys throw themselves into the difficult life of the impoverished family farm, and an awkward sort of mutual respect grows between the three. But it is the boys’ shared, mysterious rituals, recorded in detail in the notebook, that are the center of their lives and that give the film its deceptively bland title; they involve an often eerie blend of physical self-testing and punishment, as well as observation of the minutiae of the tiny village nearby. The two boys develop a wary friendship with Harelip, a facially deformed local girl, and are more or less adopted as mascots by the SS officer who runs a nearby concentration camp.
Szász depicts these events with a dry, detached tone that effectively undercuts any impulse towards sentimentality. When events bring the boys back together first with their mother, then with their father, the results are swift and brutal and the death of major characters are accompanied not by tears but with an air of resigned indifference. The violent testing rituals the twins impose on themselves have done their work in the most obvious sense.
Yet neither the boys nor the film have become morally hardened. When the only local who has shown them any compassion, a Jewish shoemaker, is murdered with the connivance of a local maid who is attracted to the twins as the nearest thing to sexually available men in the vicinity, the boys exact a swift and cruel vengeance. It is not dissimilar to the fate that the SS officer exacts on the local police chief who, in turn, tortures the boys afterwards. (Significantly, the shoemaker’s death is one of the few in the film to register any feeling of loss by the filmmakers or the twins.)
“Le Grand Cahier” is, by design, a fragmented narrative with characters drifting in and out of the film as the unpredictable violence of war dictates. Szász treats it as a sort of stationary picaresque. The fragmentation of the storyline impels him to throw a myriad of often-inventive devices into the film; they range from flipbook animation on the pages of the notebook to a bravura recreation of an aerial bombing. The latter is created from little more than shadows looming over an empty street.
The film is given a visual unity by the director’s insistence on the limitations of his characters’ vision, both literal and metaphorical, in a world full of bars, shadows and other obstructions. Szász’s direction never seems forced or unfocussed. Although the discontinuities of the narrative are occasionally unsatisfying, the final product is profoundly disturbing, and the film’s chilly emotional understatement renders it vastly more powerful than most efforts in the genre.
Finally, the decision to root the story in clearly delineated historical reality lifts it above the realm of generic allegory into something much more devastating.
One wishes the same could be said of “Shadows from My Past.” The film is deeply personal, drawing on Gita Kaufman’s family correspondence surrounding the Anschluss and what followed. But “Shadows,” while heartfelt and earnest, is marred by a consistent level of amateurishness encompassing everything from poor sound recording to factual errors and a total lack of structure. While Ms. Kaufman’s family story is certainly worth retelling, there is nothing here that we haven’t seen before in many, much more skillfully crafted documentary films.
Both “Le Grand Cahier (The Notebook)” directed by János Szász, and “Shadows from My Past,” directed by Curt Kaufman and Gita Kaufman, open Friday, Aug. 29 at Quad Cinema (34 W. 13th St.). For information, call (212) 255-2243 or go to http://www.quadcinema.com.