The story of Anne Frank and her diary is retold in this fervent, heartfelt and visually wonderful animated film from Israeli director Ari Folman, who made his name with the animated historical satire Waltz With Bashir in 2008. This is a kind of reinvention or fantasy reboot, reading the story again through a contemporary lens and giving it a kind of YA identity; not inappropriate, given that Anne Frank was arguably the great ancestor of YA.
Folman’s premise is to bring someone back to life in Amsterdam of the near future: not Anne, but the imaginary best friend to whom she addressed her diary entries: Kitty, the flame-haired confidante who was an amalgam of Anne herself and the spirited, gutsy idealised young women that she felt were typified by the Hollywood stars whose pictures she had up on her bedroom wall in the family’s cramped hiding place above her father’s office. (And incidentally, it never fails to move and amaze me that one of the celebrities Anne Frank had up on her wall is still alive — namely, the UK’s Princess Elizabeth.)
On a stormy evening, there is a night-at-the-museum scenario at the Anne Frank House, crowded with tourists by day. Kitty comes back from the ether, re-composed from the strands of ink that mysteriously float off the page from handwritten diary kept there. But the glass case is smashed, and Kitty takes the precious diary itself and goes on the run, not knowing what year it is, why she is there and most importantly, not aware of what has happened to Anne and her sister Margot. Posters advertising a reward for the stolen diary are plastered all over the city, for whom this has been a traumatising event, and Kitty finds herself befriending Amsterdam’s poorest and most marginalised: refugees who face deportation to their home countries.
I must confess that the ending to this particular subplot is a little bit naïve, although Folman is always careful not to imply an exact equivalence between the refugees being taken away and Anne and her family being taken away to the camps. But there are bold and startling visual compositions as Kitty ranges far and wide over the city, astonished at its alien modernity, and at the fact that the images of her pen-pal Anne Frank are everywhere, with theatres and buildings named after her. Folman brings off a coup by showing Anne’s birthday party and then showing Kitty creeping into the audiences for a stage-play about this very event, and getting very angry about the things the modern world is getting wrong. And in her memory, the Nazi troops loom like giant dementors, and then, having read the accounts of Anne’s father Otto, the final terrible journey to the camps is conflated with visions of the underworld and the River Styx.
Kitty’s point, and by extension Folman’s point, is that by fetishising Anne Frank, the modern world is losing touch with her actual sentiments: that we should be kind and compassionate to each other (although of course Anne Frank, a private person writing words not intended for publication, could have no conception that she was giving us a message of any kind.) Folman has created richly imaginative storytelling which unselfconsciously mixes the historical, the contemporary and the supernatural.