A Modern Take on Anne Frank’s Holocaust Saga Wows Cannes
The animated film "Where Is Anne Frank," from director Ari Folman ("Waltz with Bashir"), offers a stunning reimagining of the brave young Holocaust victim’s life.
In 2013, Justin Bieber created a media furor after he visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and wrote in the guestbook that he believed Anne “would have been a Belieber.” Eight years later, the “What Do You Mean” singer makes a very brief appearance, a delicious in-joke, in Ari Folman’s Where Is Anne Frank, a new animated film aimed at a family audience, which retells the story of the teenager from a modern perspective.
Though the film, which made its premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, stops short of supposing which modern popstars Anne would have stanned if she were alive today, it does essentially bring the character to life in the modern era, by dreaming up a scenario whereby Kitty, Anne’s imaginary friend to whom her diary was addressed, comes to life off the page and falls in with a group of refugees. As Kitty comes to grips with the ways in which the world has changed since the 1940s, she also relives the experiences of Anne as her family went into hiding. The result is a film of terrific scope, dynamism, and humanity, which occasionally takes a turn for the didactic and gloopy.
Where Is Anne Frank is set, a card tells us at the beginning, in a time “a week from now.” In a beautifully drawn Amsterdam viewed from its skyline, we descend toward the Anne Frank House, where tourists queue outside the door. By the entrance to the museum, beside the canal, a group of homeless refugees struggles with a tent in the gale, before it blows away. At this point, a crash inside the museum brings mortar onto the book in its casement, and from its ink rises a figure—this is the ghost of Kitty, Anne’s imaginary friend. Already in this introduction, Folman displays great storytelling skills and inventive animation techniques, conjuring a vibrant world of murky colors and ably bringing magic to life within it. The parallels between the plight of Anne Frank, and that of the refugees in Amsterdam, in case you had missed it, will be underlined over the course of the film, culminating—audaciously—in Kitty making a very public stand on behalf of asylum seekers.
Before then, there is the business of re-telling the story of Anne Frank, and as Kitty reads the diary—not knowing what end Anne eventually met—we are plunged into the pages of the book. If this framing device becomes somewhat plodding after a little while, it may be worth remembering that Folman’s intended audience is mostly a young one—and for the most part, the film manages to avoid talking down to people unfamiliar with the life of the Franks. It succeeds in this by using its resources of animation inventively, bringing Anne’s imagination into being in bravura sequences, such as a magnificent battle against the forces of Nazism waged by Anne’s heroes: Greek Gods, fantastical beings, and Clark Gable on horseback, lifting the girl onto his steed as he courses along. Folman charmingly matches his drawing style to the circumstances, as when he animates a 1940s commercial, giving it a corny period flavor while meshing it with disturbing bomb footage. On another occasion, when a refugee, Ava, tells Kitty the story of her flight from her home country, Folman employs a crayon-y, hand-drawn style in orange and red, which makes this sequence pop. All of these formal devices are imaginatively rendered, helping the film to breathe a little where it could have been stifled by its sometimes edutainment format.
Still, some awkwardness remains. Mostly, this is due to the occasionally cloying, overstated dialogue, which too often rams its points home, and to the slightly wet voice acting, which gives us American actors aiming for “British” neutrality. The love story that Folman sets up between Kitty and Peter, a young pickpocket who lives with refugees in a squat, has an unfortunately “how do you do, fellow kids” quality to it. This kind of thing inevitably feels a bit quaint, but perhaps audiences should be grateful that Peter at least never performs a rap.
Where the film scores is in the way it captures Anne Frank and her family: in those moments, one could wish for the whole framing device of Kitty to have been jettisoned, because Anne and her folks are so beautifully drawn, in all senses of the word, that we want to see more of them. A scene of Anne’s various suitors striding along the street is lively and endearing, recalling the vintage Walt Disney lope: something that is all the more potent when this sequence is followed by all of these boys being called absent in a near-empty classroom.
So many scenes are gorgeously depicted and have the ring of truth, as when Folman captures upside-down police officers in the upturned roof window that Anne and her family use to look out at the world outside in relative safety. This ability to summon the Franks means that when Folman depicts them heading toward a work camp and then Bergen-Belsen, in a remarkable sequence where Anne imagines the forces of Nazism as workers in Hades, with Cerberus straining at his leash, we feel a suitably enormous wallop.
There is a fury at play behind the film, which comes to a head when Folman dares to bring together his twin stories of the persecution of Jewish people in the 20th century, and the persecution of refugees today. Folman lashes out at a modern hypocrisy that sees the 1940s as a historical event set in aspic, and the modern day as having moved on from political oppression. There is a touch of white saviorism in this methodology, where Kitty becomes a hero of the immigrants she champions, which is of a piece with Folman’s occasionally stodgy tone. But in conceiving this story that dusts off and resets the true story of Anne Frank for a modern audience, this likable, richly devised film does more than enough to land a potent punch.