Diary of Anne Frank Review
There’s something particularly depressing about seeing a good director start to believe their own publicity and contracting the disease of elephantisis. The classic example is David Lean, who in the course of twenty years went from the brilliance of Great Expectations to the endless risible mess of Doctor Zhivago. But you can see the same thing happening to Carol Reed, William Wyler and George Stevens. The latter made The Diary Of Anne Frank in 1959 and had already begun to equate self-conscious ‘seriousness’ and excessive length with artistic significance. Having turned Theodore Dreiser’s brilliant An American Tragedy into the glossily romantic A Place In The Sun and extended a decent ninety minute melodrama into the three hour plus Giant, he embarked upon a quest to turn the deeply moving journal of Anne Frank into an epic meditation on the suffering of the Jews in occupied Europe during the war. It convinced many critics at the time and was nominated for several Academy Awards but in hindsight, it looks trite, turgid and more than a little overlong.
The film begins in Amsterdam in 1942. Following the German measures against the Jews in Germany, many German Jews moved to unoccupied parts of Europe such as Holland. When the Germans invaded Holland and began to send the Jewish population to their deaths in camps, some of these Jewish refugees attempted to survive the war by hiding out, aided by sympathetic Dutch nationals. The Franks were an example of a family who hid in an attic above a spice business at 263 Prinzengracht , accompanied by a neighbouring family – the Van Daans – and another man named Mr Dussell (Wynn). The youngest daughter of Franks, 14 year old Anne (Perkins), began to write a diary and described her captivity in minute detail. Eventually, the family were found and taken to Bergen-Belsen. Only Otto Frank (Schildkraut) survived and he returned to Amsterdam where he found and preserved Anne’s diary. When published, the diary proved to be a bestseller and was instrumental in raising public consciousness about the Holocaust. The stage version of the book changed the names of some of the characters and the film duplicates this.
There is every reason in the world to read Anne Franks “Diary of a Young Girl”. It’s readily available in paperback and is still one of the most moving books I have ever read. Written in a charmingly naive and determinedly hopeful style, it documents the plight of European Jews with a simple honesty that is desperately sad and strangely eloquent. I want to emphasise the significance of Anne Frank as a symbol of the obscenity of genocide because in criticising the film I don’t want it seem as though I don’t appreciate the importance of the subject. Indeed, it’s because I recognise this importance that I think the film is so inadequate.
I should begin by praising the ways in which the film succeeds. In the role of Otto Frank, Joseph Schildkraut is quite extraordinary. It’s a beautifully low-key performance from an actor who was one of those jobbing players who were the backbone of Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s. This is his best work by far, recreating the role he created in the Broadway play, and the character he creates is all too believable, especially in contrast to the hysterical people who surround him. Gusti Huber, also from the play, is very touching as Mrs Frank and there’s a nicely restrained turn from Diane Baker as Anne’s repressed sister Margot. George Stevens understands how to deal with these actors and he allows them a lot of space to create characters, using long takes and never rushing the pace of their scenes. This pays off particularly well with Schildkraut, who uses pauses and silent looks to great effect. Stevens also deserves some praise for occasionally effective moments – Anne’s first kiss with Peter Van Daan (Beymer) is often cited in favourite scenes lists, and the moments when the families are on the verge of being discovered are sometimes excruciatingly tense. The production design, painstakingly recreating the real locations, also deserves praise.
But the rest of the film is average at best and sometimes hopelessly mediocre. The patience that Stevens expends on the good performances is unfortunately extended to the bad ones. Shelley Winters, who bafflingly won an Academy Award for her role as Mrs Van Daan, is just awful with her wailing and screeching about being discovered, and when she’s trying to be a heartwarming Jewish mother she’s simply embarrassing. Winters was never a favourite actress of mine but she was pretty good when a director gave her all-encompassing personality an edge of nastiness - Lolita springs to mind. But here she is unrestrained and given far too much freedom. I can’t resist quoting Pauline Kael’s great comment about her performance in The Poseidon Adventure - “It’s like having a whale say you should love her because she’s Jewish.” A similar comment can be made about Ed Wynn as the incredibly irritating Mr Dussell. Wynn was a marvellous comedian but his acting performances rarely find the right tone between comic and serious. Here, he tries to make Dussell quirky and troublesome but he just comes off as annoying. The same goes for Lou Jacobi as Mr Van Daan, but more so. Richard Beymer isn’t much good as Peter but then he was never much good in anything – his blandness comes close to wrecking West Side Story and the only time I’ve ever found him interesting was when he appeared in “Twin Peaks”.
Millie Perkins is a bigger problem. She was chosen for the part of Anne Frank after a much publicised series of screen tests but it’s hard to believe that they couldn’t have found someone who would have been convincing in the role. Perkins isn’t particularly likeable nor is she believably innocent. She comes across like a Broadway ingenue who has slept with a few too many producers. It doesn’t especially matter in principle that a 19 year old is playing someone five years younger but it does matter when the girl looks and behaves like a 19 year old. In the scene where she asks Peter if he’s ever kissed a girl, she reminds you of Mrs Robinson which is presumably not the effect which was intended. Perkins has a couple of effective moments here and there but overall it’s hard not to recall the old joke about Pia Zadora’s appearance in the play during the 1980s – she was so dreadful that when the Gestapo arrived at the house, someone in the audience shouted out, “She’s in the attic!”
Stevens chose to shoot the film in black and white because he believed it would heighten the drama. The problem is that this becomes an obvious dramatic device, much as it does in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Monochrome is only more convincing to people who think that it equals seriousness while colour equals gloss – but that’s an aesthetic judgement, not an intellectual one. The black and white used in The Diary of Anne Frank tends to point up the artificial nature of the film and the straining for realism and seriousness which wrecks it. It also gives a drab appearance which is hard to watch for three hours at a stretch. This isn’t necessarily the case with black and white – watch The Grapes Of Wrath for example, a long film which is exquisitely shot by Gregg Toland with a palate that is way beyond what William Clothier achieves here. This isn’t a visually distinguished film – the monochrome is dingy and lacks variation as opposed to the black and white used well into the 1960s by the great James Wong Howe. We’re told that Stevens deliberately shot scenes too dark in order to force the viewer’s eye to pick out details, but I don’t buy this at all. The decision to shoot in Cinemascope, enforced by 20th Century Fox, doesn’t help either. This kind of material would work best in fullscreen format, to heighten the claustrophobia. 2.35:1 is too wide and it makes the attic seem more spacious than it must have been in reality. It also suggests ‘epic’, a form which Stevens became trapped in with Giant and was later destroyed by in The Greatest Story Ever Told. But this is an intimate film and should have been kept as one. To be fair, this was not Stevens’ fault and he tried to fight it. However, I don’t know who else we blame for the awfulness of Alfred Newman’s score, a concoction of pure treacle which is ladled over the film with the relentless inevitability of night following day.
The material is so intrinsically moving and powerful that it’s hard to understand just how George Stevens could have made such a mess of it. The play itself didn’t help. Read now, it seems needlessly hysterical and melodramatic, full of ‘significant moments’ that have been plucked from the diaries simply in order to make sure that the audience don’t feel too depressed at the end. But it is a depressing story and it should be. It doesn’t sufficiently dramatise Anne’s own inner conflicts between conformity and rebellion – a theme which constantly recurs in the diaries. The crumbs of uplift are particularly annoying in retrospect. The suggestion is also made that being forced to hide somehow liberates the Jews from their repression and allows them to find their souls again, which edges uncomfortably close to suggesting that some greater good came from these years of unlimited horror – a suggestion which strikes me as blasphemous in the extreme. Stevens, who worked on this film for four years and was passionately committed to the subject matter, seems to have lost his inspiration in the process and his directing consists of plodding through the scenes without any particular attention to pacing. His own commitment is evident when you see the films he made for the US Army during World War 2. His film unit was the first to enter the liberated camp at Dachau and the footage he shot – in colour – remains distressing and unforgettable. The brief scenes of this included in the documentary on the flip side of the DVD are more effective than the entire three hours of the film in expressing just what the Holocaust was all about. My own feeling is that the Holocaust should not be dramatised at all but if it has to be, then this self-consciously serious and finally very tedious film is not the way to go about it.
This film has been released as part of Fox’s marvellous Studio Classics series. Along with the awful Love Is A Many Splendored Thing, it’s the worst of the movies released so far, but the DVD is typically superb.
The film is presented in the original 2.35:1 ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. This transfer is a fantastic piece of work and another feather in the cap of Fox’s Studio Classics range. Considering the often drab cinematography, this transfer does a fine job. Detail is fantastic throughout with sharpness that never develops into edge enhancement and the contrast is quite stunning. Blacks are rich and deep and the shades of grey come through very well. There is a small amount of print damage, presumably unavoidable given the age and state of the raw materials, but the restoration is generally a superb achievement, especially when you watch the comparison featurette.
A range of soundtracks are offered. You can choose to watch the film in Mono or in Dolby Digital 4.0. The latter is the best option, replicating the original stereophonic Cinemascope presentation to impressive effect. It’s not a particularly eventful track and most of the time it is directed towards the front channels but there are some impressive moments where the other channels are used for atmospheric effects. It’s a subtle and sensitive track that serves the film very well. English and Spanish subtitles are provided for the film.
There is also an audio commentary which runs for most of the film. This is by George Stevens Jr. and Millie Perkins and is decidedly self-congratulatory in tone. This is understandable – Stevens Jr has devoted himself to documenting his father’s career – but it makes the commentary a bit of a trial to sit through. Perkins seems very pleased with herself, which is fair enough considering that this was probably the most significant work she ever did in film. It’s worth listening to for some fascinating moments of behind the scenes gossip but you may well have to listen in several sessions. I certainly did.
The other extra features are all contained on the second side of the disc. The centrepiece is a ninety minute documentary called “Anne Frank: Echoes From The Past”. This combines a serious historical study of the background to Anne Frank’s story with a study of the making of the film. Needless to say, this is uncritical of the film – from this documentary, you’d think the movie was a masterpiece – but it’s well worth watching for some magnificent documentary footage from 1940s Europe and the aforementioned clips from Stevens’ film about the liberation of Dachau. Narrated by Burt Reynolds, this is a very good documentary that is more worthy of your attention than the film. No subtitles are provided on this featurette, sadly, and it is divided into 12 chapter stops. It is in fullscreen with film clips presented in non-anamorphic 2.35:1.
We also get a brief extract from George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey which deals with the making of the film. This is quite interesting and makes you eager to see the rest of the documentary, although the tone is once again more than a little self-satisfied. This is presented in fullscreen.
The “George Stevens Press Conference” concerns the casting of the role of Anne Frank and is quite a nice period piece. Millie Perkins’ screen test is also included and doesn’t provide any more hints than are contained in the film as to why she was chosen. There are also six “Movietone News” extracts featured, dealing with the casting of the film, the Oscars and the premiere. These are quite entertaining to watch but have dated alarmingly. It’s like watching something from another world. The final extract, dealing with the premiere is hilariously inappropriate – “curvaceous Jayne Mansfield... adds just the right touch of glamour” – and offers the chance to see Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons in full war paint. The soundtracks of these extracts are pretty dismal but that’s hardly a surprise. It’s pretty incredible that they still exist at all. Oddly, the Academy Awards highlights segment doesn’t include any reference to the three awards won by Anne Frank.
Also on the flip side of the disc are two trailers and the usual invaluable restoration comparison. As usual with the Studio Classics series, the menus are low-key and sensible. The film itself is divided into 32 chapter stops.
I want to shout the virtues of Fox Studio Classics from the highest mountains. This series is a marvellous achievement with particular highlights for me being My Darling Clementine, How Green Was My Valley and All About Eve. I have to say that The Diary Of Anne Frank isn’t in the same league as those great movies but it’s been given a great transfer and some valuable extras.