This review of Where Is Anne Frank comes from the film’s screening at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. Stay tuned for more information when the film becomes available to the public.
Ari Folman’s creative animated film Where is Anne Frank follows in Folman’s familiar style of using memories to explain present-day traumas. His best-known film, the animated anti-war documentary Waltz with Bashir, accurately parses the human toll of the Lebanon War by exploring the filmmakers’ own recollections of the events. The director attempts a similar route in Where is Anne Frank, a fantasy that dramatizes events from the life of the Holocaust’s most famous young diarist, but filters them through the lens of her imagination. In the near future, long after Frank’s death, lightning strikes her famous journal, bringing the spirit of her imaginary friend Kitty (Ruby Stokes) to life. Kitty, who the real-life Frank addressed diary entries to, then has to contend with what happened to her creator decades earlier.
Kitty pours forth from the pages of Frank’s diary as a gorgeous spiral of colorful strings, and finds herself in the Anne Frank House, the museum built from the factory where Anne and her family hid during the war. She discovers that every building around the house is named after her friend: the movie theater, the library, etc. She also discovers that while she’s in the museum, no one can see her, including the tourists who shuttle in and out. But she becomes a real girl whenever she takes the diary with her into the outside world. Kitty goes searching for Frank, and as the police pursue her for stealing the diary, she falls in love with a local boy and embroils herself in the refugee crisis affecting Europe.
With Where is Anne Frank, Folman aims to educate children on the Holocaust through vivid animation and a relatable teenage girl protagonist. It’s an admirable goal, but he falls victim to the cliché of a white-savior narrative. Through much of the film, Kitty is a cipher. She doesn’t know what happened to her good friend, what followed after World War II, or how little the world has changed. For young children unaware of Frank’s story, her explorations become a great learning tool. To discover what happened to Frank, Kitty reads her diary, which transports her back to 1942. In the past, Frank isn’t the deified figure she became after her diary was published. She’s a normal teenage girl, a tad capricious, enjoying the attention she gets from boys, and from watching her idols Clark Gable, Bette Davis, and Cary Grant on the big screen.
Frank conceives of Kitty in an intriguing way, as a freckled redhead with a dash of Ava Gardner, and a splash of Frank’s own spark. She does not, however, imagine Kitty as Jewish — she codes her as white. That’s partly because Frank wants Kitty to be safe, and in Frank’s new and increasingly threatening reality, Jewish folks clearly aren’t. It takes Kitty promising to Frank that she believes in the legacy and destiny of the Jewish people before Frank can accept her as one. Folman thankfully doesn’t put a layer of self-hatred within Frank, but it’s easy to see how the narrative could go the route of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.
Through Kitty, the audience witnesses the descent of the Netherlands under its Nazi occupatipn: Frank’s family is forced to hide in the attic of her father’s factory. Another snobby family, the Van Daans and their sickly son Peter (Sebastian Croft), move in, and their food slowly diminishes. These flashbacks, outside of the moment where Kitty comes to life, offer the film’s best animation, especially in the color palette. When Frank remembers her life pre-war, the pink glow of an MGM style musical warms the screen. When Folman is depicting her family during the war, a green and red color combo takes over. And the Nazis are rendered as pale grey, ghoulish-faced boogeymen dressed in long, pitch-black garb and blood-red insignias.
In the present-day sequences, Folman tries to connect Frank’s ordeal with the current refugee crisis. Once again, Kitty is used as a cipher. She sees the horrors of forced deportation and the graffiti-smeared factory where dozens of immigrant families are hiding. She meets a present-day teenage pickpocket named Peter, and eventually falls for him, in a relationship that tonally doesn’t work with the rest of the film. While Folman is trying to create a love affair between Kitty and Peter akin to a classic Hollywood romance, the boy’s ardent words of love are too heavy-handed for children, even in a film dealing with such a grim subject.
And much as Frank had to evade the Nazis, Kitty is also being hunted, as the police track her down. Her evasion and the refugee crisis combine in the film’s final few minutes. While Folman smartly doesn’t use the argument that countries should welcome refugees because any one of them could be the next Anne Frank, Where Is Anne Frank does put all the work of saving hapless victims on Kitty’s shoulders.
When Kitty stands up against the establishment to protect those victims, the scene is meant to answer the question: “What if one person had stood up during World War II to stop the genocide?” But when a brown-faced little boy hugs a white girl and declares: “You are my hero. I will love you forever,” the good intentions get lost in the uneasy feeling of marginalization and loss of agency.
Forman is close to the subject matter: He dedicated this film to his parents, who survived Auschwitz. And the recent rise in global anti-Semitism, along with anti-refugee sentiment and the surge in white nationalism all make the movie’s arrival even more pertinent. The well-placed message and the imaginative animation will win over the film’s intended audience: young children. But the moves Where is Anne Frank uses to deliver that message may do as much harm as they bring help.
Where Is Anne Frank does not yet have an American release date.