Through the Lens Darkly

in 48th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

by György Báron

János Szász who’s indisputably one of the leading figures of contemporary Hungarian cinema, has a strong sensitivity towards the dark side of human nature.

His previous piece, Opium, Diary of a Madwoman (Ópium, 2007) told the story of a drug-addicted psychiatrist who killed one of his female patients. His black and white adaptation of Büchner’s Woyzeck (1994) which won a European Film Award, also ends with murder. The two young boys in The Wittman Boys (Wittman fiúk, 1996) kill their mother for some cheap jewellery they promised to a prostitute. In that film Szász showed the cruelty of the adult’s world through the eyes of children. In his memorable documentary Eyes of the Holocaust (2000) that was made for Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation he depicted the horror of the camps using the memories of child victims.

His new feature Le Grand Cahier (A nagy füzet, 2013) which he started to make in 2006 is a Hungarian-Austrian-German-French coproduction and had its world premiere at the 48th Karlovy Vary Film Festival. In it the director returns to the children’s point of view. The story is based on the famous cult-novel of Hungarian-born Swiss writer Agota Kristof. The protagonists again are two boys: 13-year-old twins, taking shelter in their grandmother’s country house during the Second World War.

First the Germans occupy the small village then the frontline moves forward and the Russian troops arrive. The two boys see nothing else but cruelty and terror. They decide to adapt to the rules of the surrounding world. They learn that the price of survival is to get rid of emotions, love, solidarity, and train themselves to be as tough as adult society. They record their experiences and the “lessons” they have learned in a notebook left for them by their father.

Anyone who read the dry, minimalistic and emotionless style of Kristof’s novel cannot imagine how could it be translated to the language of images. The real merit of Janos Szász and his collaborators is that they worked out a simple, but strong and effective cinematic language for their celluloid “notebook”.

The cruelty lies not in the actions — in fact there are very few bloody or violent scenes — but in the souls and in the air. There are no likeable figures in the film — and there are no evil ones, the filmmaker’s approach is cool and neutral. Everybody is, more or less, a victim of the situation, caged into the prison of circumstances.

This was the first time that Szász worked together with the brilliant veteran cinematographer of Michael Haneke, Christian Berger. It was a perfect choice: Haneke’s cold and emotionless style is close to Szász’s mentality and visual language. The dark world of Le Grand Cahier definitely reminds us of The White Ribbon (Das weiße Band — Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte, 2007) but without the mysterious elements of Haneke’s masterpiece and with a strong and decisive historical background.

Two significant stars of European cinema appear on the screen: Ulrich Mattes in the role of the father and Ulrich Thomsen, who played the psychiatrist in Opium, History of a Madwoman, in the role of the German officer. But the real protagonists are the 13-year-old Gyémánt twins, András and László, and Piroska Molnár in the role of the fat, rude Grandma.

The world premiere of Le Grand Cahier was one of the highlights of the Festival where it was awarded the Grand Prix (Crystal Globe) and the Europa Cinemas Label Jury Award.

Edited by Richard Mowe