Runtime: 99 minutes
Director: Ari Folman
Writer: Ari Folman
Starring: Ruby Stokes, Emily Carey
By Calum Cooper
Anne Frank is a girl whose story everyone has heard; a Jewish teenager whose life was taken far too soon by the evils of the Holocaust. Yet her diary, published by her father, has ensured that her creative talent and emotional insights have lived on for generations. Although she has been the subject of many stories, Ari Folman’s “Where is Anne Frank?” (2021) recounts her life with exquisite animation, and a delicacy that will bring you to tears. It is not just an ode to the writings of this wonderful girl, but a stark reminder of what her legacy stands for.
Those who have read Anne’s diary will know that she wrote her diary as if writing letters to an imaginary friend – Kitty. Rather than simply retell Anne’s story the way her diary does – from when she got the diary to her and her family hiding from the Nazis in the Secret Annex to her eventual capture – this film mostly takes place in contemporary times. One night, in modern day Amsterdam, Kitty (Ruby Stokes) comes to life and steps out from the pages of the diary. She wonders where Anne has gone, oblivious to what has happened. As she searches for Anne, she reflects on the letters that Anne wrote to her – detailing her years in hiding as well as her fears, dreams, and struggles – and how many of the prejudices Anne was up against are still central issues of the current world.
Folman is best known for his documentary “Waltz with Bashir” (2008), another animated film with important historical lessons to share. He is an ideal fit for retelling Anne’s story, not just for how he handles the importance of historical stories, but for how he ties them into the current world of today. What’s doubly impressive is his ambition to target this film towards younger audiences. The Glasgow Film Festival certified this film as 8+, meaning it’ll likely be a PG when it hits cinemas. This is a wonderful way to introduce Anne to new generations, as well as what her life stood for. In an age where other Holocaust stories, such as Art Speigelman’s spellbinding “Maus”, are being banned by right-wing governments and organisations for trivial matters, Anne’s story, among countless others, feel more important than ever.
Grounding the film are the incredible colours and artstyle of its animation. With a dreamlike fluidity to the character movements, and the rapturous colours that set the bright and bleak tones splendidly, the film is a masterclass in magical realism, as the wonder of Kitty’s apparition into the real world slowly dissolves under the weight of the real life trauma she comes to understand. The film captures both the innocence and inner beauty of Anne and her life, recognising her for the young girl she was, as well as the horror of the world she lived in. The way the Nazis and their institutions are visualised look lifted straight from Hell itself, signifying the magnitude of their evil. It is a dream and a nightmare wrapped into one visual look – imagery that is enhanced through the film’s sublime editing and transitions. The way Folman and his team utilise comparisons, be it between good and evil, light and dark, and even the past and present, is second to none.
It has a warm inviting feel to its style, yet it in no way sugarcoats its content or themes. Folman’s aim is to reach younger audiences with his film, and while he may not go into the full details of just how monstrous the Holocaust was, his approach nonetheless reveals its nature. The decision to tell the story from Kitty’s perspective is a stroke of genius. A buoyant character with an inquisitive giddiness, she is an outsider – a figment of a lost imagination, trapped in a world that idolises her friend as she remains in the dark on her fate. She is an easy character to engage with, in the same situation as many of the children who will likely see the film. Audiences unaware of Anne’s story will learn the details as Kitty does, all while showcasing Anne’s character in the most humane of lights – portraying her as charismatic, and stubborn to a fault, as well as imaginative and big-hearted. The film has a breezy pacing to its storytelling, and its emotional impact could be measured on the Richter scale.
Yet Folman connects Anne’s story to the issues of the real world, a choice that at first felt jarring but slowly became more and more vital. As Kitty learns of what happened to Anne, she also learns of the refugee crisis and the dismantling of human rights that are occurring in the present day. Drawing on Anne’s example, Kitty aims to help with this too. For she shares a compelling truth towards the end of the film – that Anne’s goal with her diary was never to become an icon, but to highlight the truth of her experiences, a truth that is felt by others even to this day. In doing this, Folman not only upholds Anne’s legacy, but demonstrates what we should be learning from it through the film’s themes of prejudice, injustice, courage and hope. It is a creative choice that will hopefully inspire the younger generations who will come to learn of Anne Frank, her life, and the horrors of the past, through this film.
It is easy to lionise someone like Anne, but the ultimate sadness of her story is that she was merely one of a million and a half children murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. And the things she was a victim of, anti-semistism and right-wing extremism, did not die with the Nazis. If anything, they are on the rise once again. With the gobsmacking denial of reality seen in anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, Trump/Putin supporters and others, Holocaust denial is shockingly becoming more prevalent too. Films like “Where is Anne Frank” not only celebrate our historical figures, but emphasise the importance of what they stood for. Anne’s story may be one in millions, but her writing encompasses the voices of those millions every bit as much as her own – a fundamentality that Folman embraces with compassion and assuredness. With beautiful animation, heartbreaking themes, and a portrayal of a human life captured with a measured sensitivity, “Where is Anne Frank” is as vital as it is magical and sublimely devastating.