Anne Frank Remembered
review by Carrie Gorringe, 1995

In October 1943, SS chief Heinrich Himmler gave a speech at a secret meeting in Posen (located in Western Poland). The purpose of this meeting was to act as a morale-booster for leaders of SS personnel engaged in the monstrous business of the "Final Solution". During the course of his speech, Himmler made his now-infamous statement that the "Final Solution" was to be "a never-to-be-written page in our [Nazi Germany's] history." Of course, the irony in this statement is well-known in retrospect, for the Nazis did keep meticulous records of their transports and of camp prisoners, so many that even last-minute attempts at destroying those records could not obliterate the paper trail that linked them inexorably to the murders of millions of Jews (and also non-Jews). The pages of history would be written, to be sure, but not in the manner intended by Himmler and his accomplices. Nevertheless, there is, understandably a lingering fear among survivors that Himmler's aims might eventually come to pass through the fading of memory or an outright denial of the Holocaust. These elements have encouraged survivors to bravely step forward and to bear witness to Nazi crimes. Since the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of the camps has just passed, the impetus to bear witness has gained an even greater imperative, as the number of persons able to provide the necessary testimony sadly diminishes with each year, while the number of Holocaust denials seems to grow.

It is understandable, then, that filmmakers would join in this quest to bear witness at this historical juncture. Jon Blair's new documentary, Anne Frank Remembered, acts as a counterpoint to his Oscar-winning documentary, Schindler. Having examined the life's work of a righteous Gentile, Blair now turns his attention to what the film refers to as "Hitler's most famous victim". The title is no exaggeration: Anne Frank's diary is probably the first work that most people have read on the subject of the Holocaust. Certainly it has to be the best-known work on the subject: twenty-five million copies of the diary have been sold in fifty-four languages since its initial publication in 1947. But even with this literary success, it is surprising that Blair found himself in the position of being the only documentarian interested in producing a film about Anne's life. To his credit, he has done thorough research, bringing together her childhood friends and the only-known surviving footage of Anne in the attempt to create a well-balanced portrait of Anne, character flaws and all.

To understand the relevance of "bearing witness" and how such testimony is utilized in Anne Frank Remembered, it is first necessary to understand the relevance of this concept in Jewish culture. One of the elements that is so striking about the Holocaust, from a historical perspective, is the deliberate omission of documentation at what one might call a macrohistorical level. That is to say, while records existed of camp rosters, orders for equipment etc., there are no documents from the Nazi hierarchy -- for obvious reasons -- that provide evidence as to the systematic implementation of genocide from the top downward. It is this lack of empirical evidence that provides comfort to those who deny the historical veracity of the Holocaust, since no document exists with Hitler's signature that states his murderous intentions openly (an argument that becomes less logical under the onslaught of "I-was-just-following-orders" excuses from lower-level functionaries, since the existence of orders presumes the existence of a hierarchy and Hitler's absolute power makes it plain that nothing could have been done with the Jews without at least Hitler's tacit approval).

But, in terms of Jewish tradition, bearing witness means more than simply restating one's individual case history with the intent of building up a macrohistorical body of evidence through a multiplication of testimonies, although it is a relevant issue. As commentators such as James E. Young have noted, the concept of bearing witness also places an incredible burden on those who testify; "For the survivor's witness to be credible," determined Young, "it must seem natural and unreconstructed", as if the testimony were an objective recording of facts. In this style of testimony ("documentary realism"), the Holocaust is literally brought to life in a mimetic fashion through endless descriptions of actions that are presumed to be completely unspeakable. But, as Young proves rather conclusively, the fact is that many of these testimonies, given long after the course of events, are historical reconstructions, filled with archetypal and mythological allusions. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong or illegitimate about testimony that is collected in this fashion, since all cultures tend to add these elements to narratives, whether fictional or non-fictional, in order to make them relevant (and the Holocaust is no exception in this regard). The problem arises, however, in a particular reluctance among testifiers to downplay the existence of these particular elements in Holocaust testimony, based upon the very real fear that such an acknowledgments would de-legitimize the historical value of the documents. Unfortunately, according to Young, this is exactly what has happened; pseudorevisionist writers have seized upon the use of allusions in testimony, and extended this extremely redundant and irrelevant "discovery" into an excuse to deny the historical validity of all descriptions of the Holocaust, a contemptible act which has been facilitated to some degree by the lack of certain key documentation listed above. The result has been an extremely vicious circle for Holocaust survivors: outraged by the liars who deny the truth of their suffering, the tone of their testimonies becomes understandably more inflexible in admitting to the narrative aspects of their testimony, only to have the liars seize upon this inflexibility as "proof" that the Holocaust is itself a lie.

Unfortunately, Blair falls right into this vicious circle in regard to Anne Frank Remembered. It is his aim to render Anne Frank not only a martyr to racism (which she undoubtedly is), but also to make her into an insightful chronicler of her time and place; the latter issue is somewhat more problematic. Anyone who has ever read Anne Frank's diary will know that it, by and large, is taken up with the self-indulgent concerns of a typical adolescent -- accounts of arguments with her mother being the most plentiful -- as anyone might expect it would. True, the diary, as published, does also concern itself with the day-to-day concerns of living in hiding, and occasionally, as the film makes clear, Anne does address the greater tragedy of the Holocaust. But the film also tells us that Anne rewrote her diary some two months before she was captured, with an eye to postwar publication and a career as a journalist. Therefore, it is difficult to know just how much of the material relating to external events was contained in the original copy (this the film doesn't tell us) and how much was added in a post-facto, self-conscious sense. From the numerous diary entries quoted by the film, we know that Anne had knowledge of the fate of the Jews (in one entry she sees a group of them being rounded up outside her hiding place). But, in assessing this post-facto rewriting of Anne's diary, the questions that must be asked are how much information she actually possessed and when she actually came to know it (Miep Gies, one of three people who assisted the Frank group while they were in hiding, has stated that she gave information every day to Anne during her daily trips to the hiding place, and that Anne wrote the information down after each trip, but Ms. Gies provides no details in the film as to the extent of their conversations). It is not the validity of the information that Anne presents which is thrown into question, but rather her chronology. As a document of the psychological effects of living in hiding, Anne's diary is an invaluable historical account; but as an infallible historical account of the daily events in her life during internal exile, it must be used with extreme caution. Blair provides no details as to what was rewritten, perhaps because those details are unavailable. But, if they are not, why is the film silent on this issue? Is there a fear that such an admission would render Anne's work less worthy of consideration as a historical document of human suffering? As was made evident earlier, a reasonable assessment of Anne's work can only conclude that the answer is "no", provided that certain contexts are taken into consideration beforehand. But Blair seems to not want to take any risks in this regard, and the tacit denials of any difficulties in Anne's diaries leaves her work vulnerable to attacks from the unjust.

Moreover, Blair's use of hyperbole to define Anne's abilities is unfair, since it burdens her work with unfair expectations; he seems to want to recreate and elevate Anne as some sort of commentator with absolute powers of perception, someone whose work acts as "a warning to the discriminatory" (although Blair never explains just how the diary acts in this fashion, since many of the Nazi killers escaped from justice and, even more depressing, there has been no cessation of genocidal activity in the post-war world). Even in making allowances for her age and inexperience with the ways of the world, it must be said that Anne was not as precocious about the ways of the world and human nature as one might expect from the tone of this film; as a young girl living under extraordinary circumstances, and coping with biological and psychological stresses, Anne was in the awkward position of simultaneously knowing too much and too little. Two weeks before the occupants of the hiding place were betrayed, arrested and deported to Auschwitz, Anne wrote in her diary concerning her amazement that she hadn't lost all of her ideals while living through this ordeal, but she held onto them, "because in spite of everything I believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death..." Unfortunately for Anne, this was precisely the foundation on which she would have to build up her hopes. Although she also claimed to see the "ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too", she very quickly came back to the belief that "if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquillity will return again." The phrases are touchingly painful, and render us sympathetic to her plight, but, in all honesty, they display very little prescience about Nazi intentions and her declarations about her coming destruction seem less like a forthright assessment of her potential fate than they do vain invocations to ward off fate.

Further problems with Anne Frank Remembered are evident at the level of narration. More specifically, the weight of Blair's own testimonials is at times overridden by the seemingly careless use of language. In its eagerness to demonstrate rightful outrage over Nazi crimes against the Jews (and non-Jews), this narration has a tendency to lapse into clichés that oftentimes appear to have egregiously offensive connotations. Early in the film, the audience is informed that "one million innocent children" were among the victims of the Nazi slaughter. Far be it for anyone to deny the innocence of children, but it should be noted that the remainder who were subjected to systematic murder were "guilty" only of the "crime" of being Jewish (or had committed what the Nazis considered to be one of a number of offenses against their state). The other victims are no more culpable simply because they had attained legal age before the shooting and gassing started (in his defense, Blair is not the first person to have used that phrase so carelessly, but that fact does not excuse its use under any circumstances). Even worse, some of the narration is so clumsily written that the film comes dangerously close at times to undercutting its own pro-Semitic message. At one point, the film seems to suggest -- not so covertly -- that the tragedy that beset Anne Frank and her family was somehow much greater than that experienced by Nazi victims at large, because the Franks were cultured and well-to-do; they were, as the narration puts it, "the antithesis of ghetto Jews". This crassly dismissive comparison, uttered without any irony whatsoever, occurs just after the film has finished condemning Fritz Hippler for his loathsome psuedo-documentary, The Eternal Jew (a 1940 film that used images of starved and terrorized ghetto Jews, among other cinematic and analogous hoaxes, to condemn Jews as an "inferior" race worthy only of extermination). From a purely objective stance, the intra-class comparison would be historically inaccurate, since, with few exceptions, socio-economic status was one area in which the Nazis and their collaborators did not discriminate in their dealings with Jews; all victims were to be dispatched with the same brutality, unless they had useful skills or physical strength that might delay their demise for a short time. From a subjective stance, this comparison would be an insidious obscenity, since it obliterates historical fact. Nevertheless, the narration appears to connote the attitude that if it hadn't been for those Jews in the ghetto, the Nazis wouldn't have gathered such a bad impression of Jews on a wholesale level, and Anne might have survived. Setting aside the understandable and ahistorical wish fulfillment, some care should have been taken to avoid any misunderstandings of this type.

The central problem with Anne Frank Remembered is Blair's insistence that Anne should represent all Jewish suffering during the Holocaust. Unfortunately, he confuses a common result -- suffering -- with common experience. In obliging Anne's memory to act as a synecdoche for the suffering of all Nazi victims, Blair not only burdens her memory with too many expectations, but, and more inexcusably, he obliterates the individuality of that suffering, and the ideological structures that made it possible. In the end, despite the overwhelming layers of personal testimony, Anne Frank Remembered tells the audience very little about Anne, but the film speaks volumes concerning the problematic aspects of Holocaust representation. Its inclusion among the nominees for Best Documentary Film in this year's Academy Award competition is perhaps understandable, but it is by no means the best documentary ever made about the Holocaust.

Written and
Directed by:

Jon Blair

Narrated by:
Kenneth Branagh
Glenn Close

Music by:
Carl Davis




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