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Beyond the Attic

A miniseries trying to paint a fuller portrait of Anne Frank has touched a sensitive spot in those who protect her memory.

April 29, 2001|ELIZABETH JENSEN | Elizabeth Jensen is a Times staff writer based in New York

RAGUE — On the late-February night before the ABC miniseries on the life of Anne Frank was to in shooting scenes of her family's leaving Holland and arriving in Auschwitz, it snowed in Prague. The city awoke to 8 inches of white draping every tree and soot-blackened Baroque statue. It was beautiful.

Not so, however, for the producers trying to tell the story of the German Jewish teenager and her famous diary, kept while she and her family were in hiding in Amsterdam, before being betrayed and shipped off to Nazi concentration camps. The snow, which continued off and on through the day and into the night, threatened to disrupt a full day of filming, even throw off the last two weeks of the production. At this point in the story, Anne and her family, after being discovered hiding in the annex to her father Otto Frank's business, were taken to a Dutch transit camp, where they soon boarded trains to Auschwitz. They left Holland and arrived in Poland in the beginning of September. And there was no snow.

Ultimately, historical accuracy had to go. "If you're Steven Spielberg [filming 'Schindler's List'], you can afford to wait" until conditions are right, says one member of the production team, but the ABC movie, rushing for an already tight May 20-21 airdate, didn't have that luxury. The upside? The muddy snow and the general discomfort of the freezing actors added a level of grimness to the scenes.

From creating a script that doesn't use a single word of Anne's writing, arguably the source of the power of her story, to switching producers midstream, the snow was just one of many compromises made along the way by a production team striving to stay extraordinarily faithful to one of the most affecting stories of our time. At the same time, producers needed to satisfy audiences as diverse as the handful of still-living survivors who knew Anne to the millions who will be looking for a four-hour Sunday-and Monday-night TV escape.

Making a Holocaust-related movie is a process fraught with pitfalls, and taking on an icon as powerful as Anne Frank only adds to the challenge. The combination of "show business and the Holocaust is a difficult mix," says Robert Dornhelm, director of ABC's "Anne Frank."

Still, across Europe, re-creations of World War II-era streetscapes, battlefields and concentration camps keep appearing, testament to pop culture's extraordinary interest in the dramatic tales of brutality, tragedy, survival and heroism.

As "Anne Frank" is filming in Prague, at the other end of the former Czechoslovakia, in the Slovak Republic capital of Bratislava, a quarter-mile long, four-story high replica of Poland's Warsaw Ghetto has been built for NBC's upcoming miniseries on the 1943 Jewish uprising there. So many projects on the era are in the works that producers of "Uprising" say they had a hard time lining up enough period costumes for the movie, which will air in November. Feature films abound; "Anne Frank" barely got its cattle cars from one film in time for shooting.

Meanwhile, Prague residents last winter watched as a nine-building, exactingly detailed replica of Anne Frank's Amsterdam block on Prinsengracht Street rose on the banks of the Vltava River. Built for $150,000, it was a fraction of what it would have cost to re-create the era and place in Amsterdam itself. Outside of town, replicas of the Auschwitz entrance gates and the barracks at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where Anne died of typhus, could be found.

Even before embarking on the current production, ABC had run into roadblocks with the Anne Frank story. Along with producer Spielberg, ABC had hoped to do a remake of "The Diary of Anne Frank" but found that the rights were tied up (and have now gone to Fox 2000, one of the studio's film producing divisions), says one executive familiar with the situation. So when Melissa Mller's widely acclaimed, unrestrained "Anne Frank: The Biography" came out in 1998, ABC quickly bought the rights and enlisted Spielberg, who, in addition to "Schindler's List," has started the Shoah Foundation, which collects video histories of Holocaust survivors and produces documentaries on their stories.

By basing the movie on Mller's book, which, in addition to the diary, relied on extensive document research and interviews with numerous people who knew the Franks, "I immediately thought this is an opportunity to place the story of the Anne Frank we all know and love in a broader historical context," says Susan Lyne, ABC's executive vice president of movies for television. "We can finally see what happened to Anne. The diary cuts off at a certain point."

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