Why Ari Folman Is the Right Man to Retell the Animated Story of Anne Frank

After initial revulsion at the news, I realized that if anyone can create an alternate history putting Anne Frank in the center of Holocaust memory, it's him.

Uri Klein
Uri Klein
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Uri Klein
Uri Klein

The lead female character in the popular TV series “The Big Bang Theory” is Penny, a young, cute blonde of Midwestern descent, who came to Los Angeles to become a star. For the time being, however, her dream is far from being realized. One of the few parts Penny’s been offered, during the several seasons the series has been on the air, is that of Anne Frank in a production of the play based on her famous diary. The play is being staged in a hall above a bowling alley.

The noise made by a salvo of bowling balls during the play doesn’t disturb Penny; quite the opposite. The way she sees it, it provides a realistic dimension to the production, since it sounds as if guns are being fired outside the hiding place in which the play is set. It’s amusing, as is the casting of Penny for the part, as it seems that in terms of her looks and ethnic origin, no one could be less suited to play Anne Frank than she.

In “Big Bang,” this casting is a deliberate joke. But, a similar statement was made in 1959 when 21-year-old Millie Perkins, a New Jersey-born model who had no acting experience − and, most significantly, was not Jewish − was cast in the title role in the film version of the play “The Diary of Anne Frank,” written by Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett.

The film, expected to be one of the major Hollywood productions that year, was to be directed by the highly esteemed George Stevens, who already had won two Oscars for “A Place in the Sun” and “Giant.” From the start, he declared that Anne would be played by an unknown actress. Stevens and 20th Century Fox, which was producing the film, embarked on an international search for the woman who would play the role, but once their choice was made public, a howl of protest arose. The protest revolved in part around the issue of why it had to be an unknown person that played Anne, and more specifically why the role was not awarded to actress Susan Strasberg, daughter of Lee Strasberg, a founder of the famed Actors Studio. Her performance in the lead in the Broadway play earned the Jewish actress critical acclaim ‏(incidentally, when she left the production after more than 700 performances, Strasberg was succeeded by the Israeli actress Dina Doron‏), and she had already appeared in several movies. Another objection was that the international search for an unknown actress, which made headlines and which eventually ended in the United States with Perkins, was little more than a PR gimmick, and that it did a disservice to the seriousness of the production as well as to the memory of Anne Frank.

Perkins, who eventually received quite good reviews for her performance, paid a visit to Israel to mark the film’s debut here, in 1959. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won in three categories, including the best supporting actress prize for Shelley Winters. She played Mrs. Van Daan, whose family had hid together with the Franks.

In 2009, Perkins returned to Jerusalem as a guest of the Jewish Film Festival. In an interview with Haaretz then, she related that she had never aspired to be an actress, she had not even known that a search for an unknown one to play Anne Frank had been taking place, and that until her audition, she had never even heard of the young Dutch woman or read her diary.

Over the years, there have been other odd choices of actresses for the part of Anne Frank. In 1980, for example, a televised version of the play was produced, in which Anne was played by Melissa Gilbert. The reader might remember her mainly from her portrayal of the little girl in the popular American TV series “Little House on the Prairie.”

Walt Disney heroine?

I was reminded of these stories last weekend when I read an item in The Hollywood Reporter, one of the more important papers covering America’s film industry, noting that director Ari Folman’s next film will take on the story of Anne Frank − in animation. My initial response to the news was astonishment diluted in near-repugnance. The reaction grew only stronger when friends and colleagues who’d heard the news expressed a similar response to mine.

There are several reasons for this sharp reaction. One is that animation, in spite of the fact that it has been employed in numerous creative and even daring ways, is forever linked in the consciousness to films meant for the entire family. Images ran through my mind in which Anne Frank has been reduced to the status of one of those valiant young female characters who in recent years have been featured in the Walt Disney Company’s animated movies.

Another reason was the feeling that Folman’s choice was somewhat opportunistic, since anything to do with Anne Frank and her diary, and it matters not in which medium or format, guarantees instant approval and appreciation.

Only gradually did my initial response give way to another reaction, one that was diametrically opposed. The article in The Hollywood Reporter included a quote from Folman, who said this would offer a fantastic opportunity and challenge to present Anne Frank’s story before the entire world. He added his belief that there is a real need for new artistic material to keep the memory alive for younger generations. Memory of the Holocaust? Or of Anne? That he didn’t say.

It was an exceedingly generic sort of pronouncement, but it did contain two words that grabbed my attention: Need and memory. Anne Frank’s story and her diary are the best-known symbols of the Holocaust, but their value has been severely eroded, as they are served up with a thick layer of kitsch and sentimentality. It is easier to identify with the story of an individual than with the story of six million. Anne Frank was chosen, practically pushed, into becoming this individual by dint of her heart-rending journal, written by a sensitive young girl who even experienced her first love in the hiding place from which she was led to her death.

Much has already been written about the often-problematic manner in which Anne Frank has been turned into symbol and myth. Her diary became compulsory reading in so many schools worldwide, and the house in Amsterdam where she hid has become a tourist site that no traveler misses, along with visits to local museums featuring the works of Van Gogh and Rembrandt.

I will not repeat the whole gamut of stories that have appeared over the years regarding the evolution of this process, in which Anne’s father Otto Frank − the only member of the family to survive the Holocaust − played an active part. Nevertheless, perhaps the time has come to redeem Anne Frank from the history that evolved in the wake of her diary’s initial publication in 1947.

Perhaps it is indeed time to create for her an alternate history that would resituate her, her story and the myth that grew up around her − in a more significant and analytic way − in the center of Holocaust memory. And if there is any artist who might be capable of doing so, it is very likely to be Ari Folman.

Holocaust in Hollywood

The discourse about the connection between memory of the Holocaust and how it is represented in films is, in my opinion, the most central and most intense of all questions facing cinema in the post-World War II era. Until Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” in 1993, the conversation focused mainly on documentaries and a handful of feature films, but its influence on the development of modern cinema, primarily in Europe, has been profound, even when it came to films that did not directly engage in memory of the Holocaust.

The discourse reached a climax, one that in the meantime has not been surpassed, with “Shoah,” the magnum opus of Claude Lanzmann, which was released in 1985. The success of “Schindler’s List” ‏(and I will not enumerate the film’s problems here‏) burst the dam, and since then a great number of feature films have been made by people who are no longer afraid to forge a link between Holocaust remembrance and filmed entertainment that is usually melodramatic and sentimental.

Most of the movies dealing with the Holocaust that have been made since Spielberg’s have put me off, due to their failure to grasp the problematic nature of this subject. The two exceptions to this are “The Pianist,” by Roman Polanski ‏(2002‏), and − here I am liable to shock many of my readers − Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” ‏(2009‏). In my defense, I will say only that, when, with some hesitation, I shared my contention regarding Tarantino’s film with Claude Lanzmann during his recent visit to the Jerusalem Film Festival, he agreed with me.

The Reporter stated that Ari Folman and his collaborators in the planned film have been granted access to archives around the world that house materials related to Anne Frank. This is good news, but what I am most curious to know is whether Folman’s next film will follow the same creative route on which he embarked with “Waltz With Bashir” and continued with “The Congress.”

Folman’s movies are far from perfect. In my opinion, “The Congress,” more than “Waltz With Bashir,” suffered from lack of clarity and from flawed screenwriting. And yet, in spite of the problematic aspects, Folman is an artist whose films intrigue me, because they contain an analytical dimension that is missing from the majority of films made today.

Despite their considerable stylistic contrasts and different genres, both of those films are about the power of elapsed time. In “Waltz With Bashir,” Folman engaged in the power of past memory − the first Lebanon War, in this case − in shaping the scarred individual and collective subconscious. In “The Congress,” he cast his gaze on the future, but the power of time in that film was no less significant than in his previous one.

It may be a little unusual for a reviewer to declare his wish that a filmmaker − who has only now declared his intention to make a particular movie − follow a certain course of action. I do not know what Folman intends to do in “The Diary of Anne Frank,” except for what he said in the general declaration quoted in The Hollywood Reporter. I would hope that the film would not merely tell the Anne Frank story so as to perpetuate her memory among a widespread audience, but that it would expose the roots of the myth that has evolved around it, and consider its place in the history of Holocaust remembrance and how it is portrayed on the silver screen. In addition, I hope Folman will indeed explore how this memory has shaped individual and collective subconscious: The subconscious of history since the end of World War II, of cinema in particular and of culture in general, as they have evolved since that time.

If Folman is able to pull it off, the film would constitute not only a creative work that would perpetuate the story of Anne Frank and the myth surrounding it, but also a work that takes a profound look at the story and the myth, and in so doing makes a significant contribution to the ongoing discussion about the link between Holocaust remembrance and its representation in cinema, and perhaps also in culture in general.

To put it a bit differently, this could be a film about the power of cinema to document the past, to commemorate memory and to weigh their place and significance in the here and now, where his work would be created. He could use the tools of his craft in a context in which the present is already in the past tense, and the past inevitably turns into the present.

It is these thoughts that have softened my initial response to the item in The Hollywood Reporter, which as I said, was characterized by surprise, some degree of revulsion and a dash of cynicism. In any event, I am looking forward to seeing the movie, whose production, according to the report, is set to begin this winter. Any film that engages in memory of the Holocaust sparks my curiosity, even if I find most of these efforts to be disappointing and discouraging, in the end. I hope that will not be the case for Folman’s film, and that when we do have the opportunity to see it, I will not be sadly reminded of the words I’ve written here.

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