'Where Is Anne Frank': Why You Need to Watch the New Holocaust Animation

It may present an uncomplicated message, but 'Where is Anne Frank' is worth watching for its artistic achievement and being the latest chapter in the career of a talented, bold and ambitious filmmaker

Uri Klein
Uri Klein
A scene from Ari Folman's 'Where is Anne Frank.'
A scene from Ari Folman's 'Where is Anne Frank.'Credit: Bridgit Folman Film Gang
Uri Klein
Uri Klein
  • Country:
    Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Netherlands, Israel

What was Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman's goal when he set out to make “Where is Anne Frank.” And who was he making it for?

Since the film’s premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, it has been regarded as a project aiming to make Holocaust history and Anne's tragic story more accessible to children and teenagers. After all, it's animated, depicts the experiences of young people, conveys simple messages and doesn't show the Holocaust's atrocities in detail. But the film's creative and intellectual efforts take it beyond a designation for a specific audience. It is, in fact, suitable for adults and children alike.

The movie’s title is a question without a question mark that turns the question into an answer, too. The film asks where Anne Frank is today, and provides us with an answer.

Anne Frank's imaginary friend Kitty comes alive in Ari Folman's "Where is Anne Frank."Credit: Bridgit Folman Film Gang

In neither case is it referring to the actual Anne Frank but rather to the historical memory linked to her and her symbolic significance. The plot is based on an encounter between Frank and the imaginary Kitty, to whom she addressed her diary and who the film brings to life.

A year from today, as a title at the start of the movie tells us, a fierce storm hits Amsterdam, but it doesn’t prevent a long line of tourists from crowding outside Anne Frank House. Meanwhile, a glass cabinet holding a copy of Anne’s diary is shattered, sending the words billowing up in black ink and converging in the form of Kitty. The storm also damages a shelter that had been put up by a family of immigrants near the museum, a bit of foreshadowing.

Anne about town in Amsterdam in Folman's film.Credit: Bridgit Folman Film Gang

Anne became the most remembered of the 6 million. The paradox of her story, something that Folman’s film touches on, is that while Anne Frank most famously embodies the Holocaust victim, she has been turned into a symbol increasingly removed from an actual girl who lived and died. She has become a myth.

Several times in the film we hear how her name is emblazoned on streets, squares and schools throughout Amsterdam. Does her memory still carry a message, does it still have a role to play. I purposely leave off the question marks here, as in the film’s title, because these questions contain their own answers.

Bordering on kitsch

In the film, Kitty is a slender girl with red hair. Since she hitherto lived exclusively on the diary's pages, her story ended when it ended, and she had no way of knowing what happened to her friend Anne. She knows the house where she has never left, but she doesn’t understand why, decades later, so many people are roaming around touching things there.

Kitty is an imaginary character depicted in most of the film as a real character sometimes visible and sometimes invisible. This brings a conundrum into the script, a kind of intellectual complication. It gets the imagination going, but I'm not sure Folman, the maker of “Waltz with Bashir” (2008), resolves it in a satisfying way. It’s best not to think too much about Kitty; you should simply respond to her.

Kitty leaves the house and goes out into the city, taking with her the diary with its familiar red-and-white cover. Of course, the entire Amsterdam police force scrambles into action, and when it's discovered that the diary was stolen by a red-haired girl, posters of Kitty as public enemy No. 1 are plastered all over town.

Kitty’s attempts to elude arrest and find out what happened to Anne are interspersed with scenes from the secret annex where Anne hid with her parents, sister, another family and a dentist. This dimension also includes scenes where Anne speaks with Kitty, someone Anne’s mother can't see. (At one point, Anne’s mother comes into her room and asks who she’s talking to.)

I've use the word “complication” to describe one of the script's ploys, but the main complication has to do with the message the film conveys and for which, I think, it was designed. Outside the house, Kitty meets a girl named Eva, a refugee scheduled for deportation.

With an awakening intuition, Kitty realizes as she wanders around Amsterdam that Anne Frank may have become a brand name, but the lesson of her myth has faded. The memory of the Holocaust and Anne's story have taught humanity nothing. The world ignores and represses the diary's message, it continues to oppress the weak, represented in the movie by refugees. It continues to treat them cruelly.

This is a worthy message, but in “Where is Anne Frank,” it's shaped so dogmatically that it borders on kitsch. Can the world only respond to the message of Folman’s film if it's presented this way, without any shades of complexity getting in the way?

Anne in Tel Aviv

As I write this, I can't forget that Folman is an Israeli artist, born and raised in a country where, more than anywhere else, the Holocaust and its memory have helped shape the local history. The influence of the local historical and national – and nationalist – consciousness is vast, demanding from us a moral reckoning about our conduct as a nation.

Peter van Pels and Anne Frank in the secret annex. Credit: Bridgit Folman Film Gang

Is it fair to demand that such a talented and bold Israeli artist like Folman treat Anne Frank’s story with more complexity? And if the film is indeed meant for children and adolescents, don’t they deserve a more complex message in a less coercive and more natural way?

Maybe “Where is Anne Frank” actually places Anne deeper in the mystery contained in the title. In an odd way, Folman’s film seems to be afraid of emotion. It's afraid of the emotion that Holocaust movies automatically stir, it's afraid that this emotion could have a manipulative and possibly exploitative side.

Thus, “Where is Anne Frank” feels mostly like an exercise in creating historical cinema. It's interesting from this perspective, but the result yields very little emotion. Some will see this as a virtue, as proof of Folman’s decent intentions, but with a film about the memory of the Holocaust, being so sparing with emotion can often seem intentionally ingratiating.

“Where is Anne Frank” is absolutely a film worth seeing, both because of the impressive animation and because it's another chapter in the career of a filmmaker whose work has been marked by admirable ambitiousness.

We shouldn’t get too sucked into Folman’s film. We should grapple with the questions it raises, including the ones with no questions marks attached.

The movie is also interesting for continuing the historical discussion that Anne’s diary ignited shortly after World War II. Different versions of the work have been published, and each film or documentary presents its own take.

Here's one small memory of my own. When I was in eighth grade at the Dubnov School in Tel Aviv in 1959, the class was offered the chance to go to a movie with the teacher.

We could choose between two movies being shown in Tel Aviv; the first was “The Diary of Anne Frank,” director George Stevens’ version of the play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, which was widely admired. The second was “Imitation of Life,” Douglas Sirk’s melodrama about racism in America, a film that had yet to win much acclaim.

I had already seen both and voted for “Imitation of Life” – the only one of us who did.

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