There are many striking elements to George Stevens’ The Diary of Anne Frank. William C. Mellor’s stunning cinematography consistently captures the claustrophobia and mental/emotional degeneration of two and a half years in an attic. Unfortunately, Mellor does not employ his skills to shed light on the horrors of the Holocaust. Cynthia Ozick’s focus on Otto Frank’s submersion of some of the more disturbing or scandalous elements of the diary finds cinematic parallels in George Stevens’ film version. With Peter Novick’s chapter, “Not in the Best Interests of Jewry,” from The Holocaust in American Life close at hand, we might re-title Stevens’ film The Amnesia of Anne Frank.
Novick’s chapter focuses on the virtual absence of public (and private) discourse about the Holocaust in the years immediately following the war. Novick gives numerous reasons for this silence, some understandable and all unfortunate. He mentions the precious few films and books that helped break the silence, not the least of which was The Diary of Anne Frank. Yet if we examine the film version of this popular literary work, we find the perseverance of this deafening silence. Far from a striking diegetic presence, the reality of the Holocaust plays a minor role throughout the course of the film.
To follow this argument, and to be faithful to the film, we must recognize that we bring a lifetime of familiarity with the Holocaust to our viewing of this film. Therefore, we view this film through gas chamber-colored glasses. Yet from the start, the evils surrounding the Frank’s attic seem, for the most part, miles away. The tensions that occasionally build result more often from a persistent burglar than Nazi soldiers. The enemies appear only once before they come to take the Franks and van Daans away at the end. Of course we see them march along the street, rounding up Jews and their protectors, and even shooting someone in the middle of the street; however, in the film, it appears that all will be well for these two families if they just quietly stay in the attic.
In the film, Anne makes little reference to the horrors around her. She has one nightmare in which she envisions rows of Jewish prisoners swaying solemnly. Are they approaching a gas chamber? Are they working? We never know as she is broken off in her description of it. She begins to talk to Peter about the horrors surrounding them, of which the audience is well aware, but Peter breaks her off well before she can say anything horrific. Anne’s greatest worries involve her relationship with her mother and her roommates.
As time passes, the invasion begins. We see the planes flying overhead, or at least their exhaust trails. We hear the exploding bombs and gunfire and we see the trembling house; however, we never see the explosions themselves or their destructive, bloody remains. Of course, this film is an adaptation of Anne’s diaries and therefore a more internal exploration. However, in a movie that runs three hours long and was panned for its pouty, unconvincing lead actress, Millie Perkins, perhaps a more focused approached to the Holocaust, diegetically speaking, while still relying on a heavy dose of the diary, could have leant more gravity to the film.
Ultimately, however, Novick’s book, The Holocaust in American Life, evidences the near impossibility of speaking cogently about this evil. The Diary of Anne Frank is simply one of many films that tries to do so, all of which have shortcomings of their own. Perhaps we can forgive The Amnesia of Anne Frank, and other films, for their inability to contain the enormity of this event.