An Anne Frank for the 21st Century
By Symi Rom-Rymer
For Yom Hashoah this year, PBS devoted a week to films with Jewish themes. Among its many offerings was a revised and “most accurate-ever” adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank. My initial reaction, I admit, was skepticism. First of all, done as a tele-play (even by Masterpiece Theater which I love), I was afraid it would be heavy on the schmaltz and light on depth. But more importantly, I wondered why we needed a new version of what is probably the most well-known story to come out of the Holocaust.
The metamorphosis of Anne’s experience from her diary to bookstores to the stage to film and back to bookstores again with an uncut, updated version, is one fraught with tension and controversy. She has become a powerful icon through which Jewish social, religious, and political identity is hotly debated. Not to mention the question of who, if anyone, can claim ownership of her story. When the original movie first came out, Anne’s story was still quite unknown—indeed the much of Holocaust experience was still a mystery to the greater American public. Today, the exact opposite is true. Instead, the question is the reverse: given all of this background, what can Masterpiece Theater offer that’s fresh and thought-provoking?
What this film does wonderfully is bring to life the Anne Frank of her diary. Unlike the previous versions of her story on stage and on screen, this version refuses to cast her as a symbol of the Holocaust experience or as goodness personified. Instead, it simply presents a young teenager who is trying to understand herself—as person, as a young teenager, and as Jew,–all while trapped in extraordinary circumstances. The Anne we see is an entirely believable depiction of a precocious, vivacious 13 year-old, just as she presents herself to her readers.
But even more than that, Deborah Moggach, the screenwriter, was not afraid present a multi-faceted protagonist. Despite her power on the page, Anne is not always an easy personality to like. Her fights with her parents, particularly with her mother, her dismissive treatment of Peter and her sister, her bouts of narcissism are all on display in this version. And while these traits may shatter some of our illusions, it also offers the audience a more satisfying and complex portrait of Anne as a fully fleshed out girl.
Where I feel the film fell short was in its exploration of the other characters. In her diary, Anne spends quite a bit of time describing the other members of the Annex. But unfortunately, this depth was missing on screen. For example, when Edith Frank appears paralyzed on their first day in the attic, she is simply shown frozen with a blank look on her face. But as a viewer, I wanted to know more. What is she thinking? How does she eventually learn to cope? Moreover, one of Anne’s strengths as a writer is her ability to analyze and vividly bring to life the others around her. But in the film, it seemed as though these other rich characters had to be restrained so as not to overshadow the protagonist: Anne Frank. While her personal experience is certainly the primary story, this is not just her history, but also the history of those around her. Something that seems to have been sadly overlooked in this adaptation.
While I might still disagree with PBS’s choice of showing this film as the representative film of European Holocaust experience for this year—there are other, lesser-known Holocaust movies that also deserve a wider audience such as Radu Mihaileanu’s Train of Life or Richard Dembo’s Nina’s Home —Anne Frank’s story is still as powerful today as it was when her diary was first published in the 1950s. As the credits rolled, my friends and I—all well-schooled in the Holocaust—felt emotionally wrung-out. In the end, perhaps, that’s all that matters. If, no matter how many times we watch or read about Anne’s experience, we are as invested in her story as if we are watching it for the first time, then we will not allow it—or the history of the Holocaust–to fade into oblivion. And that really is what Yom Hashoah is all about.
Symi Rom-Rymer writes and blogs about Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and Europe. She has been published in JTA, The Christian Science Monitor and Jewcy.