The first thing you notice is the face: young yet wise, marked by a mischievous smile and completed by large, round, electrically curious eyes. Anne Frank, whose diary remains the definitive Holocaust victim's testament, will always be the 20th Century's iconic child, frozen in the midst of potential, robbed of a future by the century's greatest evil.
And yet the most striking quality of filmmaker Jon Blair's two-hour "Anne Frank Remembered," tonight on the Disney Channel (during the channel's free preview week), is how close we come to the world around Anne, represented by those who knew her. Blair is less concerned with Anne's book, originally titled "The Annex," than with those who survived to tell her story.
In many ways, Blair's fine work (narrated with a bit too much understatement by Kenneth Branagh) is everything you don't experience visiting Anne Frank House in Amsterdam--site of the hideaway shelter that Otto Frank arranged for himself, wife Edith and daughters Margot and Anne, plus other invited guests. The house is possibly the saddest, most bracing tourist stop in Europe, but it doesn't tell the whole story.
It certainly doesn't humanize the figure of Miep Gies, for instance, who becomes in Blair's film a great, humble hero. Gies was one of Otto's employees in his pectin-making business, a non-Jew who courageously helped the Frank family with food and supplies every day of their hiding. It was Gies who rescued Anne's three diary books and papers the day Nazi authorities discovered and arrested the Franks. (Excerpts from her writings are read here by Glenn Close.)
On camera, Gies meets for the first time the son of Fritz Pfeffer, who shared a room in the hideaway with Anne--and whom Anne hated. The son, Peter (who died of cancer two months after filming), reveals the bitter life his father had endured and that Anne could not have known. Though they badly clashed in the annex, Anne and Fritz are described here in the same terms: "caged birds."
Gies also learns on camera for the first time of recently discovered cards and letters Otto sent to his mother after the war, and how he knew that he could never repay the debt he owed Gies and her co-workers. In this and other moments when Anne's living girlfriends recall the good and bad times, the emotions of the past come hurtling across the screen into the living room. For these eyewitnesses, 50 years ago is yesterday.
For Hanneli Goslar, that yesterday is perhaps especially bitter. Anne's closest school chum, she learned too late that the Franks had fled to Switzerland before the scheduled 1942 roundup of Dutch Jews to labor camps. But that exile was the rumor Otto had planted as a ruse to distract the Nazis; Goslar didn't know that her pal was in a hide-out, just a few miles away on the Prinsengracht canal. Blair films Goslar at Bergen-Belsen, the camp that became the last Nazi killing field and where she finally reunited with Anne across a barbed wire fence.
Goslar tells Blair that Anne wrongly assumed that her father, to whom she was much more closely attached than her mother, had died in the camp. If she had known the truth, Goslar reckons, Anne might have been able to survive until the Allies liberated the camp. As it was, Anne died a month before the liberation.
"Anne Frank Remembered" emphasizes the often ironic memories of the survivors over the well-known Anne Frank legacy. Though the film falls short of explaining to the younger viewer the power of Anne's book (now in an unexpurgated edition that includes her sexual awakening), it does tell of the book's effect on such former political prisoners as South African president Nelson Mandela, and how Otto lived on to become a kind of international father figure.
Now, with Blair's film, Anne Frank lives on, through the voices and memories of those who were just a little luckier.
* "Anne Frank Remembered" airs at 9 tonight on the Disney Channel.