If books had vocations, then Anne Frank’s diary would teach Introduction to the Holocaust. When it was first published in 1947, it was one of the earliest first-person accounts of Nazi persecution to appear, and since then, 31 million copies, in a total of 67 languages, have slid off the presses. The diary is taught almost universally in schools, sometimes in literature classes but more often in history, and it’s the second-most-popular nonfiction book ever printed (the Bible is No. 1; when it comes to sales, booksellers are textual literalists, it seems). Nor has Anne Frank been allowed to rest peacefully on the page. Even the few people who managed to make it through school without reading her diary have probably seen it enacted in one of its numerous stage, movie, TV, or documentary adaptations. The remaining stragglers who still haven’t met her may do so on Sunday and Monday nights, when ABC airs a two-night miniseries, simply titled Anne Frank.
As these various Annes have proliferated over the years, so have the problems with her depiction. In “Who Owns Anne Frank?” a stinging 1997 indictment in The New Yorker, Cynthia Ozick expressed a startling, radical wish: that the diary had been burned rather than discovered and published. She protested that its pages have been “bowdlerized, distorted, transmuted, traduced, reduced … infantilized, Americanized, homogenized, sentimentalized … falsified, kitschified, and, in fact, blatantly and arrogantly denied.” (Observant Jews will notice that this list echoes one of the penitential prayers recited on Yom Kippur.) The violations range from Otto Frank’s suppression of several pages in which his daughter describes her sexuality, her adolescent disdain for her mother, her parents’ cool marriage, and her sister’s Zionism; to a German translator’s softening of harsh references to her countrymen; to Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich’s 1955 Pulitzer-Prize-winning stage adaptation, abetted by the leftist dramatist Lillian Hellman, which portrayed Anne as a perky, lovable sprite and stripped the story of most of its Jewish particulars; to the unending incantation of the “in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart” line (even though that passage was followed and complicated by another, far darker one). Though Ozick doesn’t use the word, the Anne Frank she describes has become a saint: worshipped and fetishized, stripped of sin or flaw, scrubbed of Judaism, and noted less for the tragic loss of her own life than for that loss’s ability to bring hope and inspiration to others.
Here’s the harshest part of Ozick’s argument: Even had the diary not been abused, she claims, it’s still a misrepresentation of the Holocaust, because it ends before anything truly horrific happens (the last entry is dated Aug. 1, 1944, three days before Anne and her fellow hiders were seized from their hiding place and sent to work- and concentration camps). To learn about the Holocaust from the diary is to encounter a version without camps, ovens, or corpses, one in which little girls suffer lightly and prettily and then disappear into the ether.
Ozick might be comforted to know that the creators of this weekend’s miniseries have read and heeded her essay. They must have, because their teleplay feels like a line-by-line response to the protestations, written with the specific intention of not repeating—and maybe even repairing—the sins that Ozick and others have enumerated. It’s not based directly on the diary (its official custodians wouldn’t cooperate) but on Melissa Muller’s lauded 1998 biography, which revealed the missing pages for the first time, and which recounts in horrifying detail what happened to Anne after the hiding place was raided and she was forced to leave her diary behind.
You can sense this revisionist approach even from the opening shot, which shows Dutch children frolicking in a schoolyard. The camera wanders slowly, finally settling on Anne, as if at random, expressing that this is just one of the many stories that might have survived. As we get to know this Anne, we see that she is no everyteen and no pixie; instead, she’s played by Hannah Taylor Gordon as a spindly, pale, dreamy exhibitionist. The family’s Judaism and sister Margot’s Zionism are enunciated with care (at a Shabbat dinner, an actor recites blessings in pitch-perfect Hebrew). So are Anne’s frustrations with her mother and doubts about her parents’ marriage. Even Otto Frank comes in for criticism. Ben Kingsley plays him, in a virtual reprise of his Schindler’s List role, as a sagacious, mild-mannered father, but we also learn that he may have failed to protect his family adequately, passing up the chance to send his children abroad or inform the authorities that he was a veteran of the German army (which would have won the Franks preferential treatment).
One of the most impressive accomplishments of this series is to contextualize Anne’s Pollyanna-ish pronouncements about sure-to-come happy endings and the essential goodness of humanity. Critics such as Ozick have previously commented that these give the diary a false, deceptive sanguinity. But instead of diminishing these bits, the series plays them up, so that they sound tragically wrongheaded instead of cloyingly positive. “There’s always hope as long as we work hard, work and work. That’s my father’s motto,” Anne chirps to fellow inmates shortly after she and her family become slave laborers. This not only sounds foolish but is chillingly reminiscent of another motto: Arbeit macht frei (“Work brings freedom”), the slogan posted at the entrance to Auschwitz and other camps.
Most significantly, the miniseries continues for almost a full hour after Anne has been taken from the annex and her diary (ABC has mercifully decided to broadcast this segment without commercials). We see Anne, her family, and their former roommates shipped to Westerbork and Auschwitz, and the women transferred to Bergen-Belsen. Their deprivations, indignities, and deaths are portrayed with unflinching detail (though the film stops several days short of Anne’s final one, because of the lack of biographical information on which to base a portrayal). Anne becomes a walking corpse, skeletal, shorn, lice-ridden, and naked except for a ragged strip of blanket. None of her celebrated insouciance is left; instead, she’s become a Primo Levi-esque character who cruelly hisses away an old woman who wants to share her few scraps of bread.
It’s altogether satisfying to see Anne rehabilitated from her dreckiest representations and to see her story handled with such seriousness, thoughtfulness, and care. If Anne Frank’s story is Holocaust 101 for many people, this miniseries is a much better introductory course than any of the dramatic versions that preceded it. But even the more faithful representation has problems and raises a few questions on its own.
First, is anything lost when we follow Anne to her terrible end? Well, it’s awfully hard to build a concentration camp set that doesn’t look like a theme park for death, with inmates and barbed wire strewn about just so. Here, the series’ pursuit of believability is more distracting than convincing, as are the swelling music, birds chirping on cue, and other heavy-handed effects. Many artists and filmmakers have deemed any attempt to re-create the camps an artistic failure at best, and an insult to the dead at worst. For this and many other reasons, Claude Lanzmann’s masterful documentary Shoah consists entirely of interviews performed in the 1970s and ‘80s. This is also one explanation for why Art Spielgelman’s Maus books, written as comic books, have worked so brilliantly; unlike film, comics make no literal attempt at representation or re-creation.
Now that we’ve seen Anne’s brutal end, another question comes up: Is the diary incomplete without it, as Ozick alleges? I’d say no. Much Holocaust art, especially the kind that appears on network TV, suffers from a desperate compulsion for climax: If it doesn’t show the most awful parts, it hasn’t paid proper respect to the atrocities committed. But these terrible scenes tend to provoke either full-throated bawling or hushed silence. The blank pages at end of the diary don’t bring either—instead, they leave you feeling unsettled in a way that’s less dramatic, but also more haunting. Catharsis doesn’t come as easy here.
Besides, Anne’s story isn’t and will never be a comprehensive evocation of the Holocaust. Hers is an interior, individual account, devoid of much history or context. There are few Nazis, and almost no Hitler, scale, or attempt at explanation. So the diary isn’t a sufficient teacher of Holocaust 101, now or in any other version. That’s a wholly unreasonable demand to place on one slim, first-person book.
The real mystery is why people will keep making plays and films out of the diary: At least one more work, a Fox 2000 feature film, is already on the way. Most of us have experienced Anne Frank in several different forms by now. Now that the record has been corrected and Anne’s image restored, it’s time to leave the story on the page, where it was first set down. After all, there is something dulling about hearing the same poignant tale over and over. And as Anne shows in her book, she is more than capable of speaking for herself.