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Thursday, August 28, 2014

An Interview with János Szász, Director of THE NOTEBOOK (LE GRAND CAHIER)

Director and adaptor János Szász — Photo courtesy of the artist

By Joshua Handler

János Szász' The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier) is a remarkably cruel look into the violence inflicted upon people during World War II. It's an unsentimental story filled with pain, yet is one of the most beautifully profound films about that period in history I've ever seen. The Notebook tells the story of twin boys who are left at their grandmother's house during World War II and the exercises that they do to desensitize themselves to the cruelty around them. The film was shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and won the 2013 Karlovy Vary Film Festival's Crystal Globe (the top prize). The Notebook is based off of the highly popular Agota Kristof novel of the same name, so adapting it was a very large task. However, Szász and crew were up to that task, and I talked with Mr. Szász on the phone to discuss the film and its creation.

Szász said the following about adapting the novel, "The novel by Agota Krisof is like a screenplay, so adaptation went very smoothly, very quick, you know, and Agota wrote wonderful dialogues and all [of the] description [of the] actions are very, very exact in the book, so it was not that hard to follow it, but what was very important in the caae of adaptation was [finding] how to grab the simplicity that is in the...novel, because in the novel you can see very, very short, not fragmented, not detailed's kind of [written] in a cold way, and what was very important for me as a director and screenplay writer [was] also just to find a way [for us to] achieve this...coldness. [T]he hardest part [was] just [trying] to find the part under the [surface]."

And to do this exploration, Szász had a wonderful crew: "I had great mates - these two boys, the twins, the Gyémánt twins, and Piroska Molnár, the grandmother - those actors gave me real inspiration [on] how to lead them, how to show this relationship, and I had a great mate, Christian Berger, the director of photography, who is a great, great person, and he is a wonderful DOP... Without [the] actors and without Christian I would never be able to do a film like this, and the film is a [result of] teamwork, and the team is important because I must be inspired and the people must be inspired from me also."

András and László Gyémánt lead the film as the twins. Their performances are among the best child performances ever put on film, so I asked Mr. Szász how he found the twins. He said, "We had been looking for twins, approximately 13-years-old, [who are] very talented and have [good screen presence]. We wrote to all [of the] Hungarian schoolmasters...'Do you know any twins in your school and if you know, please let us know their name [and] phone number?' [W]e had three different casting teams. It was approximately a bit more than half a year [before finding the Gyémánts]. Fortune is important. We are not able to live without fortune, we need it badly. But we have to serve this [fortune], and [you have to serve] it with good work - it's the only way to serve the fortune."

I remarked that children and animals are notorious for being the most difficult to direct, but Szász made a film revolving around children with many animals in the "supporting cast". To this, Szász said the following: "It's so great to work with children. It's a pleasure because I can learn a lot, and this kind of natural presence, what they have, I just need to follow it, and this is very important. They are not actors, they are in, they don't act, they act just in the story. This is magic, I cannot describe it.

"For children actors, it is very special how to instruct [them]. [The twins] really came from a very, very poor part of Hungary, and them I found them, I traveled two-and-a-half hours from the city, and I found them with the mother, and they had been abandoned by the father, and they desired to be with the father more - they had a hard life. And then I visited them, and I began to talk about hard life. In the film, there are some very emotional moments for the kids and...the source for these moments is their own life."

Most World War II films focus on adults and their experiences during World War II. It's rare to see one focused entirely around children. So, I asked Mr. Szász what drew him to this subject matter and telling a story from a children's point of view. He responded: "I have planned this film for 13 to 14 years, but all options were absolutely occupied. Agnieszka Holland was working on it, Thomas Vinterberg was working on it. It's a very cruel novel and if you put all cruelty into the screen, nobody can see it on the screen." He continued to discuss how literature relies on the reader's imagination, whereas film works "with other tools." Szász wanted to play on the audience's imaginations, but also wanted to use the tools of film to help merge the audience's imaginations with the images of the film.

Left to right: László Gyémánt as Egyik Iker and András Gyémánt as Masik Iker
Photo by Christian Berger, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Much of the violence in The Notebook is left offscreen, yet some is shown. I asked Szász how he decided what to show and what not to show. He said, "I don't know. It's a decision. I made a general decision before, [to leave some things out]. In the beating scenes especially when the Hungarian Nazi is beating [the twins], I knew exactly where we are in the [film], and it's approximately around one hour, one hour and ten minutes. I just felt it's no time to hide, it's time to show, and it was a very painful part of making this movie, just to shoot these two days, and it was very, very hard, but it was unavoidable... I just decided [to show the violence] because I felt it's a must. We cannot hide in that moment, this kind of cruelty adult people are making with children, how they behave with children, how they can treat children, all the disrespect, which is a part of the war also, and the part of the lost morals also, so I felt that I must...[show the violence]. I just felt it's a must to say 'this is the war and learn [so that it doesn't happen again]'."

Szász said in another interview, "To make this movie was a wonderful and a painful journey for me, like a time machine, took me back into the war time. The jungle of fear and immorality." I asked him how was he able to "nagivage this jungle." He responded, "It's a kind of must because both my parents were affected in the Second World War, Holocaust survivors, and that they have a very hard package... I had a tool to witness [my parents' story in the war], and this is the making of the film. It's a kind of possibility to go back. It's not only a time machine, but its also looking for the roots, how my parents could feel, at the middle of the inhumanity and immorality. It's a kind of...obligation for me who takes it very seriously because I father and my mother, so it was no question that I need to go for hard subjects."

At one point in the film, the Jews in the town are being deported, yet the sound of someone humming happily is heard over this horrific scene. It's a scene of great contrasts. To this statement, Szász said, "I think it's very faithful to the history of Hungary, as many many people had this kind of lightness when they have seen marching children, women, old men and women, it didn't take it very hard and sometimes it was just a joke. It is a part of the Eastern European history, it's not too much people gave help. It's [making] the whole situation [ironic]. This is a part of our history, this humming.

And then, Szász told me what makes The Notebook distinctly Hungarian: "All the stuff that we [were] talking about before. Hungary had such a different history because we have been standing with the losers, and when it happened in '44, it was totally unnecessary to serve Germans, the SS, it was not necessary, but we have made it, and we put Jewish people and Gypsies and gays in a very, very organized way into the wagons and [then to] Auschwitz, and it was two-and-a-half to three months, no more, but Hungary is a kind of disorganized country basically, but Hungary became very organized (during those months)... I was in Bulgaria two weeks ago and Bulgaria was an exception because they did not deport one soul, one Jewish soul, they didn't give one Jew to the hands of the Germans. It means that every country has its own history with the Second World War, its own bad conscience, and we have enough, unfortunately, and I think that if I'm able to talk about this, that maybe it's good for the history just to talk about [it], maybe it's a little relief, because I don't blame any Hungarians now about this, but it's good to talk about this. It's a kind of relief - in Sofia, we had a dinner and suddenly a wonderful German guy just sat opposite me and we had a...conversation and [we talked about our history], and I told him that my father was in a concentration camp, and he told me that his grandpa was in a concentration camp, but he was an S.S. in the same camp [as my father]. We hugged each other - this is very important that I [didn't feel] that [he] is my enemy. He is my friend...we must forgive but we must talk about [it]. He felt, this man felt, the obligation not to hide it but to [talk about it]. When I'm able to make a film like this, I have a kind of obligation to talk about this. Maybe it's uncomfortable, maybe in Hungary people are bored with this subject, but its not clear yet, it's not clear yet what has happened. We haven't looked into the mirror. To make film, it's maybe a mirror. Maybe it's not a good mirror, but it's my mirror, and maybe people can hate my mirror, but it's a mirror."

The Notebook is in theaters in NYC/LA today and expands throughout the next month.

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