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MOVIES : Dearest of Diaries : A new documentary sheds light on the life of Anne Frank and those near to her--and on the unnerving parallels between her world and ours.

February 18, 1996|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Cultures create myths and fables because they need them; thus was born the real-life fable of Anne Frank. A Jewish girl who kept a diary during the two years her family spent hiding in an Amsterdam attic before her death in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945, Frank fulfilled a complex collective need when her diary was published in 1947.

Putting a single face on the vast horror of the Holocaust, Frank served as a reminder of the quiet acts of heroism that were part of that high-water mark of evil, and quickly metamorphosed into a symbol of the indomitability of the human spirit. Still reeling from the nightmare orchestrated by Hitler, the world latched onto Frank as a way to begin to approach this most formidable of questions: Why does mankind occasionally elect to devour itself?

Frank blossomed into nothing short of a sensation when her diary was adapted into a successful Broadway play in 1955 by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, a play that was in turn transformed into George Stevens' equally popular 1959 film, "The Diary of Anne Frank." Translated into 54 languages and with sales hovering around 25 million copies worldwide, her book is an established part of most high school educations, and today hers is a story we pretty much feel we know.

However, as can be seen in "Anne Frank Remembered," an Oscar-nominated documentary directed by British filmmaker Jon Blair opening Friday, there's much about Frank that was left unexamined.

Before Blair's exhaustively researched film, the story of Anne Frank pretty much began and ended in that Amsterdam attic. Here for the first time we learn the story of the Frank family in the decades preceding the Holocaust, and what befell them after they were discovered in hiding. We learn that Anne died in the typhus epidemic that killed thousands of prisoners in the winter of 1944-45 in Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp near Hanover, Germany, and that hers was probably one of countless bodies bulldozed into a mass grave by British troops after they liberated the camp in 1945. Overall, Blair presents a much tougher telling of the Anne Frank story than we're used to.

"The war wasn't so far in the past when the Hackett play and Stevens' film came out, and at that point the only way you could tell these stories was to slightly sanitize them," Blair says during an interview in a Hollywood hotel. "And Anne Frank--and this is particularly true in the United States--managed to convey a slightly softened telling of the Holocaust that allowed people to start to look at it.

"I would add, however, that this isn't the only reason she was embraced by the culture. I think her book survived because it works on so many different levels. First, Anne was a hugely talented writer with an ability to evoke the experience of being an adolescent. The rows with her mother, the emergence and subsequent disappointment of her romance with Peter, her feelings for her father, her own emerging sexuality--these are generic subjects that transcend the wartime experience. At the same time, her diary shows a concern for events taking place beyond the four walls where she's hiding, so the thing also works as a narrative of wartime events. And finally, it works as a record of what went on inside those four walls. All these stories are powerfully told with an intuitive understanding of how to tell a good story."

Republished last year in a definitive edition that restored diary entries omitted from the original, Frank's diary is also the subject of Lawrence Graver's recently published book, "An Obsession With Anne Frank: Meyer Levin and the Diary." A chronicle of the travails of Levin, the writer who played a key role in the publication of Frank's diary in America in 1952 and whose obsession with it essentially derailed his life, Graver's book also examines the conflicted stewardship of the legacy of Anne Frank and the way it has been positioned in the culture.

Graver's book is a fascinating exercise in revisionist history that's indicative of an evolving view of the Holocaust. "Public perception of the Holocaust has changed, and I think 'Schindler's List' played a big part in that," Blair says. "There's a much greater awareness among survivors that if they don't tell their story now they're going to be lost to history, so there's a great deal of new information coming to light right now."

(Much of this information is being collected by Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, a project launched by Steven Spielberg that's attempting to record first-person accounts from all living Holocaust survivors. The resulting archive will be available for scholarly research at institutions in Los Angeles, New York, Washington and in Israel.)

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