Dame Helen Mirren sits at a desk and begins reading aloud from a book — a diary. The desk is in the room in “The Annex” in Amsterdam, the very room where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis and the teenaged Anne wrote one of the most important books of the 20th century, “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
Later in the documentary “#AnneFrank: Parallel Stories,” the Oscar-winning Mirren puts the book in its cultural context. Generations of teenagers who have read it in countries where it is on the curriculum, as Mirren narrates, are “forced to grow up.” Reading of Anne’s privation and teen rebellion, coming of age in history’s most horrific era and yet maintaining optimism, a lot of teenagers gain a new perspective on humanity, cruelty and the big wide world they’re about to enter as adults.
That’s the hook with this latest take on “The Diary.” The # gives it away. The film follows a young, Uggs-wearing/nose-ringed European girl, #KaterinaKat (Martina Gatti). She visits Bergen-Belsen, the camp where Anne died, and other memorials, museums and historic sites. Through social media posts directed at #AnneFrank the way Anne composed her diary to the imaginary friend “Kitty,” #KaterinaKat brings up the questions a modern teen has of this girl who bore witness, but more importantly, has felt so contemporary and connected to generations of young people who read her book.
“Anne, who were you? What were you dreaming of? Where are you taking me?”
This is a film that tries to recreate Anne’s experience of The Holocaust or Shoah through the voices of contemporaries, very old women who were very young when they, like Anne, were arrested, deported and confined to German concentration camps. They’re the last of The Survivors, and their experiences mirror her own enough that they offer more insight into what she lived through in hiding, and what she and her sister Margot went through in those last, imprisoned months of their lives.
“I want the diary to be my friend,” Anne began. So she called it “Kitty,” with entries about her routine, her dreams, her fears, even her budding sexuality all beginning with “Dear Kitty.”
Going back to the book, she reminds us that anybody in Europe with access to a forbidden radio (as the Franks and their fellow Annex tenants did) knew what was coming. “The English radio says they (Jews, Roma and others being “deported”) are being gassed!”
Historians and curators of various Holocaust memorials provide the historical background as “#AnneFrank” visits a rail car museum exhibit, or the Czech Pinkas Synagogue, where the names of all the Czech Jews murdered in the Shoah are written on the walls.
The young person “experiencing” this world gimmick is expanded later, as other teens talk about Anne along with the actress playing #KaterinaKat. But the gimmick isn’t really what this is about. As the last of the survivors die off, one more film gets their voices, their memories of “seeing Anne” as she was pointed out by somebody else in the camp who knew her, down on film.
Descendants, including an accomplished violinist, talk about how they view their great grandmothers, knowing what they know about the ordeal they survived. One has gotten a forearm tattoo with his great granny’s German ID number. And feisty survivor Sarah Lichtsztejn-Montard speaks of her generations of descendants as “my revenge” on her Nazi persecutors.
The most striking “new” location covered here is the Terezin (Theresienstadt) camp where one survivor managed to live through the horrors by being a shepherd — and now collects sheep dolls from admirers all over the world.
And the most interesting new fact (Well, new to me.) is the revelation of why Anne’s writing had such a poetic touch, something Holocaust deniers have used to insist her father wrote the book to profit from her death. No, she rewrote it herself, with an eye toward publication. The Dutch government in exile was telling residents of Occupied Holland (by radio) that their memoirs and witness stories would be published after the war. The writer in Anne wanted to be included in that.
The “young people” angle or gimmick if you will doesn’t make or break “#AnneFrank.” So don’t get hung up on the cute teen musing, via social media posts, about “what it all means.” Generations of kids have figured it out, and the cell-phone addicted won’t be any different.
Filmmakers Sabina Fedeli and Anna Migotto have created a “pop” cinematic take on Anne Frank, sober and serious and haunting at times. But it’s also topical and an earnest attempt to keep this story relevant for another generation.
It’s a hard story to screw up, and appreciating its simple authority, how quickly this film breezes by and how moving it is in the end, they didn’t.
MPAA Rating: TV-14, graphic imagery of genocide
Cast:Helen Mirren, Arianna Szorenyi , Fanny Hochbaum, Sarah Lichtsztejn-Montard, Andra Bucci, Helga Weiss and Martina Gatti.
Credits: Directed by Sabina Fedeli and Anna Migotto. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:32