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CINEMA: SAINTS IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD

3 minute read
Richard Corliss

HOLOKITSCH. THAT IS ARTIST Art Spiegelmann’s word for the banal and manipulative uses to which the Nazi Holocaust has been put in popular culture. Holokitsch reduces an egregious crime to the mechanics of cloying melodrama–dewy-eyed victims and sneering villains. Memory is debased; the uniqueness of each of 6 million lost souls is devalued.

One tonic effect of Jon Blair’s documentary Anne Frank Remembered is to restore the human scale to an immense atrocity. It chronicles the daily life of a family–the Frank family, hiding in Amsterdam from the Nazis–with a detail that never sensationalizes. It also gives a fresh perspective to the martyred teenager the world knows as Anne Frank.

We have read her famous diary, perhaps visited her Amsterdam shrine or seen the Hollywood film that lionized her. We think we know Anne’s story. And we do. We know it from the inside, from Anne’s mind, from the blossoming spirit and lively imagination that she poured into her diary. We know which members of her caged circle she loved (her father Otto) and which she hated (the dentist Fritz Pfeffer). We have this remarkable girl’s X ray. But Anne was no solitary saint; she was surrounded by helpers and victims. Many of them are still alive, bearing witness without stooping to sentiment. This film is their story too. Anne Frank Remembered is a group portrait, a social history told, with pained eloquence, by the survivors.

Anne is a vivid presence here, a child whose reckless brio offended some of the town’s proper Jews. But we also get a fine image of the doting Otto, who underestimated Hitler’s genocidal itch. He was not the only Jew to do so. A family friend, Hanneli Goslar, recalls that as late as 1940, her father would dress up as the Fuhrer and ring the Franks’ doorbell for a shock and a giggle; he later died in the Bergen-Belsen death camp. Goslar and a dozen others weave the tapestry of their lives and Anne’s, from the blithe prewar days to the horror of Bergen-Belsen. There, Anne and her sister met two young friends they had known at another camp. “Oh, how wonderful that you are here!” they all shouted–girls happy to be reunited, even in history’s hellhole.

The film’s secret star is Miep Gies, a Gentile who worked for Otto’s company. Today she looks like a stoic maiden aunt; kids at a family dinner would peg her as a stodge. But that is because Hollywood teaches us to look for shining ideals in a pretty face. Gies has the plain face of true-life heroism. Each day for two years she took food, magazines and news of the war to the Franks. She persuaded them to accept Pfeffer as a boarder. When the family was seized, she boldly confronted the Nazis. She also saved Anne’s diary. Today Gies is still doing good. In the film she meets Pfeffer’s son and assures him that his father, vilified to the world in Anne’s diary, was a “lovely, lovely man.” Their handshake is a heartbreaker.

Gies’ modest recounting of her daredevil acts makes goodness seem almost routine, the norm, in a time when monsters ravaged Europe. But that is Blair’s point. In war as in peace, Anne’s friends showed a bravery they might well shrug off as simple human decency. This harrowing, inspiring film–an antidote to Holokitsch–is their testament. It alerts us that villainy is the rank soil in which heroism can flower.

–By Richard Corliss

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