A competent, sometimes even clever film adaptation of a book that requires a film adaptation possibly less than any other in history, the chief problem with Hans Steinbichler‘s “The Diary Of Anne Frank” is that it’s hard to work out who, or what, it is for. Handsomely mounted, with little expense spared in the recreation of the world’s most famous attic, and a few flourishes designed to render its confinement narrative somewhat cinematic, it feels founded on the mistaken belief that if you’re deeply respectful to your source material, and approach it in a time-honored prestige-y manner, then the glossily watchable rendering of the story that results is a self-evident Good Thing.
But Anne Frank, admired and mourned and beloved by everyone who has ever read her book (which is, I hope, everyone) is not famous because of her story, which can be summed up in a couple of horribly short sentences. She is famous for her diary, for the way we get to live in that lively, lovely, contrary, mercurial mind of hers during the most desperate and glorious years of her short life. But a diary is a first-person work, while a film favors a third-person point of view, however partial. So not only does it seem a somewhat dubious endeavor to interpret everything Anne wrote as objective fact, it actually sells short the enduring power of her voice, to see her pen-portraits literalized, and her internal thought processes externalized. Her diary is what makes us think of Anne as a person; it hurts, indefinably, to see her as a plot.
To be strictly fair, while Steinbichler and screenwriter Fred Breinersdorfer are nothing if not immensely deferential to this 14-year-old’s 75 year-old book, there are moments, some more successful than others, when they get beyond a mere visual translation of what Anne wrote. The opening sequence is leaden but almost experimental: a silhouetted Anne (Lea Van Acken), tears glistening on her face, speaks aloud a segment from the diary as bombs and explosions strobe the curtained window behind. The end is even more so, as Breinersdorfer allows himself the license to imagine what Anne might have written in her diary had she had it with her on the cattle train to the concentration camp. It’s a somewhat ghoulish, somewhat maudlin instinct, but along with pictures of Anne, Margot, and their mother getting their heads shaved, while a huge silence wells up on the soundtrack, it’s undeniably moving.
Elsewhere, on a couple of occasions we get brief glimpses of Anne’s freedom fantasies: lying in a meadow, splashing at a beach, walking barefoot through a cold, rushing brook. In all these moments you can see the green shoots of interpretation, as opposed to literal translation, but mostly Steinbichler is tentative, content to remain relatively anonymous, as though to place any sort of discernible directorial slant on the film could be interpreted as disrespect toward Anne Frank.
So largely, the choices that go into making “The Diary of Anne Frank” are about editing: which scenes to choose, which storylines to pursue, which momentous days to allow to play through and which to skip over in ellipses. The film is to be applauded for not taking the most obvious approach and using the burgeoning puppy love between Anne and Peter Van Daan (Leonard Carow) as its main narrative spine, for including a surprisingly frank approach to Anne’s curiosity about her body and her sister Margot’s (Stella Kunkat), and for pulling no punches in its selection of many of Anne’s not-so-fine moments. Her casual, child’s cruelty to her mother (Martina Gedeck), her occasional insufferable self-satisfaction, her snooty dismissal of the terrible Mrs. Van Daan (Margarita Broich) — these are included alongside her moments of grace, her jokes, her adoration of her dad (a wonderful Ulrich Noethen), and her irrepressible liveliness within that impossible situation.
These are the whats and hows, but we’re still no closer to a why. Does “The Diary of Anne Frank” exist simply because it’s a perennial bestseller and that’s what you do with bestsellers? Does it exist because kids don’t read anymore, but it’s on the curriculum so they need a kind of cinematic Cliff’s Notes? Or does this rather worthy German-language version exist as part of a sort of ongoing cultural reparations project whereby Germans have a self-imposed requirement to ceaselessly confront their Nazi past in the most unequivocal terms? The simple fact that the film, about one of the most famous Jewish victims of the Holocaust is in German (where Anne obviously wrote in Dutch) is noteworthy, especially when it’s self-consciously acknowledged, as in the scene in which she reads off her jokey list of rules for living in the attic and ends it with, “Only civilized language is allowed — so no German!”
Frankly, none of these seem like very good reasons for this version of “The Diary of Anne Frank” to have been made, however tastefully. In this case it goes beyond the familiar refrain of “the book was better than the movie!” to say that the instinct to memorialize and commemorate her cannot ever be better served than by reading the words she left behind. In fact, it’s vaguely terrifying to imagine that some future kid might watch this film and not bother reading the ‘Diary’ because they already “know the story.” As history’s extraordinary everygirl, no one should meet Anne Frank trapped in the amber of a historical biopic, when on the page, in her own hand, she was so completely free. [B-/C+]