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Compulsion

THE STOLEN LEGACY OF ANNE FRANK. By Ralph Melnick . Yale University Press: 304 pp., $27.50

September 28, 1997|JON BLAIR | Jon Blair is a filmmaker whose "Anne Frank Remembered" won an Academy Award in 1996 for documentary feature

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There is something particularly compelling about the pathos of Anne Frank. Her "Diary of a Young Girl," first published in Dutch 50 years ago, has been translated into 54 languages and has been read by more than 24 million people around the world. Millions more have experienced her life through the somewhat anodyne Goodrich-Hackett Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play of the 1950s and the 1959 George Stevens screen adaptation of that play.

At the more banal end of this curious obsession with an extraordinary young girl are the young American and Japanese tourists who accosted a friend of mine who lived next to the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam. They were convinced that she was the embodiment of the long-dead diarist. Now I believe that the story of Anne's life should come with a warning: "Undue concentration on the life and death of the author of this book has been known to cause obsessive behavior and other life-threatening illnesses."

I was probably guilty of the symptoms when, having been offered the opportunity to become Anne's first biographer on film, I thought I was being thwarted by an apparently obstructive agent representing one of the many rights holders who control the property known as "Anne Frank." Determined that her story be told and be told by me before it was too late and all the remaining eyewitnesses had died, I made my film anyway, securing the rights only a few weeks before its official opening. If anyone else had embarked on this course of potential financial suicide, I would have said that he or she were crazy. But, as I said, Anne Frank has that effect on people.

As the most tragic and severe example of the "illness," there is the story of the late Meyer Levin, whose 30-year dispute with Anne's father, Otto, is the subject of Ralph Melnick's book. This is an excruciating account of the desperate, proprietary instincts her life caused in its first documentarians. Levin attained critical acclaim for his 1937 novel, "The Old Bunch," the story of a group of young Chicago Jews. His best-selling 1957 book, "Compulsion," about the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder in Chicago, was his last creative offering free from his obsession with his treatment by Anne's father and literary executor and from his quest to have his unauthorized dramatization of Anne's diary performed in public.

It seems unlikely that Levin was aware of Rudyard Kipling's aphorism, "The curse of all Art is that the devotee or disciple is always more certain than the Priest," but if ever there was a more graphic illustration, it was he. To Levin, Anne's diary was Art, and if Otto Frank were the Priest, then Levin was a devotee of the utmost zeal. He believed that Anne's book could not be treated as a literary property in the legal sense. As a unique cultural object of Jewish history, as a "work of art," it belonged to the Jewish people and to humankind as a whole. To Levin, the normal issues of copyright, exclusivity and the defense of author's rights did not apply to this work.

In the preface to his self-published play, he wrote that his experience with Anne's diary raised to the fore questions "central in art, politics, propaganda. . . . The right of a deceased author to be faithfully interpreted. The right of a people to use its own cultural material. The distortion of literature for ideological and commercial motives. The expression of slickness and artisanship over art. The right of a work of proven merit to have a life."

Over the years Levin accumulated some notable sympathizers for his position, among them Elie Wiesel, who wrote to Levin: "I fail to understand the behavior of Anne's father. That he should speak of 'rights' and 'agreements' and 'trials' is beyond me." One can only wonder whether Wiesel, who charges in excess of $20,000 plus first-class air fares for the privilege of listening to his post-Holocaust thoughts and memories, would be prepared to give up the considerable revenue he earns, if the same free-for-all were to be applied to his life as he and Levin were advocating for Anne's life.

To Levin, it was self-evident that he, not Anne's father, was the true interpreter of Anne's legacy and that the official version generated by screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (who were supported throughout the ordeal by their friend, playwright Lillian Hellman) was not only an artistic travesty but a travesty of justice for Anne and all the Jewish dead. As he conducted his campaign for 30 years in letters, articles and pamphlets and through the courts, Levin exceeded the boundaries of sense and decency, accusing Otto Frank of murdering his "work of art," a murder, according to Levin, tantamount to the murder of Otto's daughter Anne.

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