Combining monologues to the camera with traditional dramatization and big, charismatic performances, Swiss-born director Hans Steinbichler’s “The Diary of Anne Frank” is a compassionate and intelligently made contribution to the ever-growing body of work on the subject. Distinguished by a fresh lead performance of real range from Lea van Acken, and by a determination not to rose-tint Frank as a character, it is also significant as the first German film adaptation of the diary. While the result is perhaps too methodical and respectable to overly excite international arthouse audiences, even as subtitles prove a barrier to broader exposure, its domestic success seems assured.
More than 70 years after Frank’s murder at the hands of the Nazi regime, the Jewish teenager’s wartime diary — first published by her father, Otto, in 1947, and since translated into more than 60 languages — is one of the most widely known books in the world. Earlier screen adaptations have attracted their fair share of approbation, with George Stevens’ 1959 feature starring Millie Perkins bagging three Oscars; a 1980 TV movie starring Melissa Gilbert nominated for three Emmys; and a 2001 ABC miniseries taking home two Emmys. Forthcoming adaptations include an animated feature from Israel’s Ari Folman (“Waltz With Bashir”), suggesting that the book’s profile is in no danger of receding.
Fred Breinersdorfer’s deliberate, careful screenplay opens up the frame to show us events not chronicled in Frank’s journal, using other sources to ensure historical fidelity. (Breinersdorfer has form in this subgenre, have scripted 2005’s Oscar-nominated “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” about a 21-year old German resistance fighter who was executed by the Nazis for high treason.)
Sometimes, though, given the more neutral observational qualities that a camera, as opposed to first-person prose, inevitably imposes, the film is arguably too faithful to Anne’s perspective. The diary is an extraordinarily well-observed record of the world as seen through teenage eyes, but it is necessarily subjective. The film tends to treat her words as an objective description of events, which occasionally requires the adults in the annex to behave and speak in ways that feel like a teenager’s description rather than a documentary record of plausible adult personalities. But of course, Anne’s is the only record of the time in the annex, and so the filmmakers are caught in something of a bind: to present another version of events would become an unthinkable transgression against her writing.
The film has an ace up its sleeve in 15-year-old van Acken, who, as Anne, heads up a fine ensemble. Van Acken had already displayed some of this potential as the lead in Dietrich Brueggemann’s teenage self-martyrdom fable “Stations of the Cross” (in competition at Berlin in 2014), but that role required her to project such closed-off, vulnerable obstinacy that it was difficult to gauge her true range. Her performance here captures the Anne that we know from the diary precisely: emotional yet analytical, intelligent but impassioned, and far less placid than her well-behaved older sister, Margot, who is also well sketched, acne and all, by Stella Kunkat.
Margot’s acne feels oddly significant — it’s a physical manifestation of the film’s determinedly human approach to characterizing the group with a full range of charms, imperfections, warmth and weaknesses. The successful strategy of the far right in 1930s and ’40s Germany was of course to dehumanize wherever possible, characterizing Jewish people as economic scroungers and cultural parasites, a threat to a proud nation’s way of life, a nation that only a tough leadership could make great again — thereby minimizing empathy in wider German society for the plight of a minority oppressed by legislation restricting their movement, social integration and economic prospects.
As writers like Primo Levi have observed, part of the effectiveness of Frank’s diary is that it does the opposite: She is humanized as a regular teenage girl, fighting with her parents and dreaming of romance. This is Steinbichler’s approach also; the majority of his film is dedicated to spending time with a family engaged in the mundane minutiae of every day life. That their quotidian exchanges take place in strange circumstances at times comes to feel almost incidental: The normalcy of their alternately frayed and affectionate interactions convey the tensions of any family under emotional pressure, though of course the stakes here are terrifyingly high.
Passages of the diary omitted on initial publication by her father and later restored include Anne’s musings on sex and childbirth. In 2013, a specific section in which the teenager explores and describes her own genitalia with unabashed curiosity upset a Michigan mother, who complained that her daughter’s class should not be studying such “pornographic” material. It is to the film’s credit that it sticks firmly but not pruriently to Anne’s unedited version of events, however squeamish that might make people who prefer to deny teenagers’ physical agency and ownership of their own bodies.
This fidelity to the text regarding Anne personally is admirable, but deciding what to include from contemporary political events often not directly described in the diary must have been a thornier problem. That the U.S. refused the Frank family’s request to migrate to America, for instance, due to a fear of the consequences of allowing German-born refugees into the country, is omitted.
For obvious narrative reasons, the majority of the filming is interior, though some idyllic location work in Sils Maria, Switzerland, is used in flashbacks to the Franks spending time there in the 1930s, and in some of Anne’s daydreams once the family go into hiding. Amsterdam and Munich are also seen in sequences prior to the family’s concealment, but the mercifully brief dramatization of Anne’s final months post-betrayal uses stylized suggestion rather than re-creating the exteriors of the concentration camps or the horrors of the journey there by train. It’s a decision that works; these scenes prove a difficult enough watch as is.
Other than during the final 15 minutes or so, the pic is generally graded in warm tones that perhaps risk making the stuffy, closed-in secret annex seem an enviable dwelling. A night sequence set during the Allied bombing of Amsterdam is a notable exception, where lighting design contributes heavily to an affecting mood of half-glimpsed hysteria and group panic.
A likely German foreign-language submission come awards season, this is a film that will have a long life in Teuton schools as an accessible broad-brush version of events. More adventurous audiences will have to wait for Folman’s mixture of stop-motion and hand-drawn animation, which looks to take a riskier but more ambitious approach to the source. Not that Steinbichler’s respectful and respectable approach will harm this version’s domestic commercial prospects; rather the reverse.