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A Real Girl

On a drearily overcast Sunday afternoon six years ago, I visited Auschwitz. For
reasons I didn't entirely understand at first, I felt compelled to touch everything within my reach. I grasped the barbed wire until my palms were in danger of bleeding. I held the sleeve of a prisoner's uniform. I felt the walls of the gas chambers. Eventually, I understood what I was doing: it was no longer enough to trust the books I had read. I was there in the real place where everything really happened, and I had to know everything, or at least as much of everything that I could lay my hands on. I had started out motivated by curiosity to see what hell was like. But once I was there, I had to chart its dimensions in the fullest possible detail.

After seeing Anne Frank Remembered, I can't help but think that filmmaker Jon Blair was driven by an even more potent form of the same impulse.

Blair is no stranger to the horrors of the Holocaust. Long before Steven Spielberg made Schindler's List, Blair made a documentary, Schindler, about the industrialist who saved thousands of Jewish lives during World War II. In Anne Frank Remembered, his subject is a Jew who was not saved -- but who nonetheless has become immortal.

Thanks to her diary, Anne Frank has gained the status of a martyred saint. As narrator Kenneth Branagh notes at the start of Anne Frank Remembered, "She is perhaps Hitler's best known victim." The only trouble with this sort of hagiography is that it does an injustice to the individual born as Anneliese Marie Frank. By making her larger than life, we risk making her story less truthful -- and less real.

And so, through his emotionally resonant film, Blair has attempted to make Anne Frank a flesh-and-blood human being once again. In this, he succeeds remarkably well.

Don't misunderstand: Blair doesn't intend to diminish Frank. Rather, by showing us the girl behind the myth, he makes the myth all the more powerful. To the dead, he can give no greater gift.

Some of what Blair has to offer is familiar material, artfully re-arranged: old photographs, archival footage, excerpts from Anne's diary. But much more of Blair's film is shockingly fresh: newly filmed eyewitness testimony from friends, neighbors, relatives, fellow death-camp inmates and others who knew Anne and her family. All of this, and more, has been meticulously accumulated and compellingly edited to provide a full history of the German-Jewish family that fled from Frankfurt to the Netherlands in 1933.

The decision to leave his homeland didn't come easy for Otto Frank, a proud man who considered himself "German to the core." But after Adolf Hitler rose to power, Frank thought it best to relocate to the Netherlands, a country where Jews were, if not embraced, then at least endured. He established a successful business, and in 1942, when Frank and his family sought refuge from the Nazi death machine, his employees were the only people he could trust to bring them food and keep their secret.

Anne, Otto's precociously bright daughter, received a diary as a 13th birthday present. A few days later, her family went into hiding. For a long time, Anne wrote in her book merely to record the typical impressions of a teenage girl. But as the days dragged on, Anne realized that her diary might give historians insight into the ordeal of families such as hers. So in 1944, she began to rewrite her diary. Less than five months later, she and her family were discovered.

One of the most engaging things about Anne Frank Remembered is Blair's willingness to view his subject in a less than favorable light. A few friends admit that Anne sometimes seemed rude and spoiled -- or, as one neighbor says with a nervous smile, "naughty." Another neighbor recalls: "My mother used to say, 'God knows everything; Anne knows everything better.' "

The final section of the film unwinds with the grim inevitability of a Greek tragedy. The Frank family was brought to Gestapo headquarters; eventually, the prisoners were loaded onto a train bound for the Westerbok transit camp in northern Holland. After Westerbok, the next stop was hell. Anne contracted typhus at Bergen-Belsen during the winter of 1944-45; she died less than a month before the camp was liberated. Most of her family suffered similar fates. Miraculously, however, Otto Frank survived, and dedicated much of the rest of his life to preserving his daughter's memory. But even in her death, the monsters continued to pursue her. Holocaust deniers claimed the Anne Frank diary was a hoax. It was only after Otto Frank's death, the documentary reports, that experts were given the chance to examine the diary and prove it to be irrefutably authentic.

A different kind of documentation is offered at the end of Anne Frank Remembered, when Blair displays a filmed record of a wedding that took place on an Amsterdam street in June 1941. The photographer turns his camera up to view the neighbors watching the happy scene. And there, in one of the windows, is Anne Frank. She looks like a very pretty, very animated, very ordinary little girl in this, the only known motion picture footage of her. She was real. And, of course, she still is.

--Joe Leydon

Anne Frank Remembered
Directed by Jon Blair.
Rated PG.
122 minutes.

 
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