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'Anne' goes between the lines of Anne Frank's diary

'Anne,' a new exhibition at the Museum of Tolerance, delves into the teenage Holocaust victim Anne Frank's experiences.

October 15, 2013|By Deborah Vankin

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti sat alone in a front-row folding chair before the start of a news conference at the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance. He had just emerged from the museum's brand-new Anne Frank exhibition, which opens to the public Tuesday, and was visibly moved.

"It was incredibly powerful," Garcetti said. "It's one of those visceral and transcendent exhibits — it hits you in the heart and the gut."

Gov. Jerry Brown also took time out of his schedule to attend the Monday VIP ribbon-cutting of "Anne," an interactive and fully immersive experience that honors the life and legacy of the teenager, who died in a Nazi concentration camp but left behind a diary that gave voice to the 1.5 million Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust.

PHOTOS: 'Anne'

"We're very busy, but I don't think we should ever be too busy to look back and to reflect on the influences that shape us even now," Brown said during the news conference. "Evil is never that far away. The power of the mind, its distortions, its desires and its corruption can wreak the havoc that we see portrayed here during World War II."

During the almost two years that Frank spent hiding from the Nazis in a secret annex behind her father's office in Amsterdam, she longed for freedom and to one day travel to Hollywood and become a movie star. Her makeshift attic bedroom was plastered with pictures torn from movie magazines, and she cherished a wistful-looking, black-and-white portrait of herself.

"This is a photograph of me as I wish I looked all the time," she wrote in her diary. "Then I might still have a chance of getting to Hollywood."

It is not by accident that the museum's newest permanent exhibition honors the teenage girl's unfulfilled dreams. The exhibition entrance is marked by a mural featuring passages from Frank's diary, her photo superimposed over the text. The mural faces a wall of windows looking northeast. Over the rooftops, through the telephone wires and sun-scorched tree tops, is the Hollywood sign.

It's a poignant and oddly uplifting start to such a weighty exhibition. That is part of what the museum is aiming for — to give historical context to Frank's story, highlighting the brutal horrors of war and the Holocaust while also preserving Frank's spirit and even optimism under such atrocious circumstances.

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"Putting this in its proper context is critically important to us," museum director Liebe Geft said during a private walk-through last week. "We all think we know Anne. But we have the opportunity to rediscover her in a very intimate way, in her own words, and understand not only the authenticity of the story, but the truths behind it and the ramifications for us today."

The $4-million exhibition, which took more than a year and a half to create, includes a wall of silent, archival film footage — flickering black-and-white images shot with an unsteady hand — of life on the streets of pre-war Amsterdam, when Frank lived there. It shows bustling intersections, rushed shoppers, passing cars. In one shot, Frank herself hangs her head over a balcony, smiling, her hair blowing in the wind. It's the only existing film footage of her, Geft said.

The roughly 60-minute "experience," as Geft called it, leads the visitor on a timed journey that incorporates eight short films and touch screens that play off of Frank's words to prompt visitors to think deeply about their own lives. Particularly powerful is a widescreen film re-creation conveying what it felt like to live in secret, locked up in the attic — the hushed meals and cramped quarters, the pangs of first love and stifled adolescent longing, the terror of gunfire going off nightly outside the attic windows.

There are traditional display cases featuring both original and re-created objects, such as Jewish passports and yellow felt Stars of David worn by Jewish residents, handwritten letters between Frank and her sister, Margot, and their Iowa-based pen pals, Betty Ann and Juanita Wagner, and ice skates as Frank might have worn. What sets these otherwise static displays apart and brings them to life is the omnipresence of Frank's own words, scrawled on the walls, wrapped around museum pillars and heard in ongoing, almost relentless audio narration, read from Frank's diary by Oscar-nominated actress Hailee Steinfeld ("True Grit"). The result is robust and uncomfortably intimate.

"Telling this story is an honor, but it was really hard," Steinfeld said Monday. "The responsibility of capturing everything Anne felt and putting her own thoughts into her own words was definitely a challenge — but I'm so glad to have done it."

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