It’s been nearly half a century since George Stevens’s multiple-Oscar-winning 1959 film “The Diary of Anne Frank,” the first and best known of the many film adaptations of “The Diary of a Young Girl,” was released. For many it remains the ultimate cinematic treatment of this classic of Holocaust literature. But that perception might be set to change with “Das Tagebuch der Anne Frank,” directed by Hans Steinbichler, the first-ever German feature film version of the book, which premiered at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival in late February.
Since its publication in 1947, “The Diary of a Young Girl” has sold more than 30 million copies in more than 60 languages worldwide, making it possibly the single most widely read document of the Holocaust. There have also been numerous adaptations for stage, radio and TV, even a 1968 chamber opera (by the Russian composer Grigory Frid) and the 1995 anime film “Anne no Nikki.”
The makers of the new film seem keenly aware of their responsibility in bringing the young diarist’s story to a new generation. The commitment to historical accuracy and the sensitivity with which the filmmakers approached the project are typical Working from a script by Fred Breinersdorfer, who also wrote 2005’s Oscar-nominated “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” Steinbichler presents an uncharacteristically nuanced portrait of Anne, where the minutiae of daily life in hiding and the strain it places on the eight people sharing very cramped quarters is as crucial as the episodes of immediate danger. The screenplay draws on the material restored in 1991 and released in America in 1995 as the diary’s “definitive edition,” including the controversial passages about Anne’s sexuality and her troubled relationship with her mother (which her father, Otto, who died in 1980, had previously suppressed). When American audiences finally get to see the film (it will be released in Germany on March 3, although no U.S, release date has been announced), they may squirm at the conversations between Anne and her older sister, Margot, about menstruation or at the scene in which Anne looks at her genitalia with a hand mirror, her voice-over narration musing, “The hole’s so small I can hardly imagine how a man could get in there.”
More significant, though, for the film’s understanding of Anne is her unbridled hostility toward her mother and her harsh letter to her father when he demands she stop seeing (or at least kissing) Peter Van Daan. “You have done us a great injustice. We have done nothing to deserve such a reproach!” Otto tells his daughter as she swells with the defiance of a child who prematurely thinks she’s earned the right to be treated as an adult.
The film is almost completely subjective in its point of view, and several characters’ direct addresses to the camera, including the powerful opening monologue during a nighttime bombardment of Amsterdam (a daring — and narratively nonlinear — choice that pays off), reinforce the sense of interiority that imbues Steinbichler’s entire film. The few flashbacks to childhood vacations in Switzerland and a trip to the beach cut short by anti-Semitic jeering are not the film’s strongest sequences, but they do provide a useful contrast to the relentlessly closed world of the attic. I would have preferred had the film not followed Anne to Auschwitz, but this coda is mercifully short, refusing to accompany her to Bergen-Belsen, where she died in February or March 1945. Perhaps an unconventional choice, such as a voice-over of Anne reading from the diary’s more lyrical passages, would have added some extra weight or meaning to the close-ups of her head being shaved and her arm being tattooed. It would have also helped preserve the sharp individual focus on Anne’s consciousness — so effectively emphasized that the attic often seems like a model or projection of her psyche — through to the very end.
If there’s a weak link in the classic Hollywood film version, it’s Millie Perkins’s slight and nasal performance in the title role. While Joseph Schildkraut and Shelley Winters both gave incandescent performances (with Winters winning an Oscar), newcomer Perkins clearly could not hold her own against the cast’s more seasoned actors, let alone serve as the film’s emotional center. As The New York Times’s Bosley Crowther wrote (rather pedantically) in 1959, “there does not surge out of her frail person a sense of indestructible life, of innocence and trust that show no shadows, of a spirit that will not die. She does not rise in the drama as a pillar of perceptible faith in man.”
Sixteen-year-old Lea van Acken was only the second actress Steinbichler auditioned for the title role. Two years ago, she won acclaim for her acting debut in Dietrich Brüggemann’s “Kreuzweg” (“Stations of the Cross”), about a Christian fundamentalist family. Unlike her character in that unsettling film, her Anne Frank is no saint or martyr. Instead, van Acken infuses the role with diffidence and loneliness that complicate and deepen our understanding of the character, even in her more carefree and generous moods. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the actress bears a physical resemblance to the real Anne Frank. The all-German cast around van Acken are serviceable, but the only actor who offers a similar sense of emotional turmoil and gravitas is the magnificent Martina Gedeck, best-known for “The Lives of Others,” as Anne’s embittered mother, Edith.
Steinbichler has said in interviews that he intends his film to speak to a younger generation. Although its success at the German box office seems pretty much assured, Steinbichler’s film is not the only contemporary version of Anne Frank’s story that will greet audiences in the near future. Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman (“Waltz with Bashir”) is at work on his own version of the diary, which is said to combine traditional and 3D animation. As for Steinbichler, the announcement that his next project will be about the life of Nazi propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl gives me hope that he’ll continue to invigorate Germany’s seemingly infinite run of Third Reich-era dramas. Judging by the evidence of this Anne Frank, he’s off to a very good start.
A.J. Goldmann is a freelance writer based in Berlin.