Director: Ari Folman (Belgium, Luxemburg, France, Netherlands, Israel). Year of Release: 2021
Amsterdam, one year from now. As a queue builds up in the pouring rain outside the Anne Frank museum, a raging wind whips up the tent used by a refugee family directly opposite. The queue barely notices as the tent is blown down the road next to them. The doors open, and they surge into the museum to carry out their tourism duties. As lightning strikes its case, Anne’s old diary transforms into Kitty, the imaginary friend and confidante to whom Anne wrote her diary.
Where is Anne Frank (why no question mark?) Is the latest film by Ari Folman, director of Waltz with Bashir. Everyone loved Waltz with Bashir. Well, nearly everyone. I thought that it was somewhat offensive to suggest that the worst thing about the razing the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps to the ground, was that it made some Israeli soldiers feel a bit sad. But I realise that I’m in the minority on this one.
Kitty is around the same age as Anne, with the red hair of Rita Heyworth and the beautiful face of Ava Gardner. We watch her chatting to her creator. When Kitty asks Anne if she, Kitty, is Jewish, Anne says “No”. You feel that she didn’t want to burden her made up friend with all the problems she has to bear. Within the museum, Kitty is invisible and without material substance. When security hear a noise and come looking, she literally walks through them and escapes.
Anne is not the pure victim described in some second-hand accounts. There is a touch of arrogance about her. When she creates her friend, she smugly gives her “my spark, my smile, my wisdom and of course my sense of humour.” Her sister Margot is slightly in awe of her confidence. And at least the way Anne tells the story, all the boys at school are in love with her. I guess she is being put forward as a positive role model in a film which is primarily aimed at Young Adults.
Anne’s family has long since fled Germany and moved to Amsterdam. Then, the Nazis occupy the Netherlands, and subjects Jews to a curfew and a complete ban from parks and other public places. The film shows in an understated way how Anne and her family start to wear yellow stars on their chests. Children start to stop coming to school and they never return. Then Anne and Margot are summoned to a meeting and the family goes into hiding living above dad’s shop.
This is all done matter-of-factly. Most people look quite normal, though whenever we see Nazi soldiers or policemen, they have skulls as heads and look like a cross between the villains in Gerald Scarfe’s The Wall, Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. And just like in these classic films and books, Where is Anne Frank shows the absence of normality in a life under occupation. When the occupiers come on screen, the whole page darkens.
The strongest parts of the film are those which simply tell Anne’s story, and that of millions like her. There is not much new to people who have read Diary of a Young Girl, but we are not the target audience. Kitty naively asks what happened to her friend, and starts a search which ultimately ends up in Bergen-Belsen. If you don’t know what is going to happen, I can envision this realisation as being a terrible shock – just as it should be.
The weaker parts of the film are … most of the rest of it, really. Kitty realises that she needs to keep close to the diary, so she steals the original copy from the diary and goes on the run. Wanted posters are put up all over town. This attempt to add some high drama seems a little disrespectful, an unnecessary footnote to a story about a young girl’s persecution and eventual death in a Concentration Camp.
Again, let me repeat that I am not the target audience, so maybe I’m not expected to get excited about the developing love story between Kitty and Peter, a young pickpocket with multiple earrings who she meets in the museum. To be honest, I found the whole story of who Kitty is and how exactly she got there to be both confusing and slightly dull, but maybe I lack the imagination of the kids for whom the film was made.
The film’s subplot, which likens refugees in modern-day Amsterdam (and anywhere else, really) is both righteous and clumsy. Peter may be a petty thief but he spends the money that he raises on a family from Mali. When the family is threatened with deportation, Kitty convinces the police not to take them by threatening to burn the diary. I’m not sure that the world works like that, nor that kids should be told that it does, but you can’t fault the rightful – if heavy-handed – partisanship.
I very much approve of any film which is appalled at the commodification of Anne, at the way in which all the buildings near her old home have been named after her, without people drawing the conclusion that the lessons of the Holocaust should be universal respect for all refugees. Did I mention that Ari Folman made Waltz with Bashir where Palestinians get little more than a walk on, walk off, get massacred role? This time he’s less crass, but still a little too clumsy and didactic.
For me, Where is Anne Frank goes down as an honourable failure – a film which looks great and has good intentions, which it doesn’t quite manage to fulfil. But I can’t say often enough: the success or failure of the film does not remotely depend on how it affects me. If it tells the kids who are watching the tragic story of Anne Frank, if it contextualises and de-commodifies her, if it raises a sensibility for the plight of refugees, then this is far more important than any effect it has on me.