Friday, June 9, 2023

Movie Review (Glasgow Film Festival): ‘Where is Anne Frank’ Is A Naïve and Tonally Inconsistent Misfire

Director: Ari Folman

Writers: Anne Frank (based on the diary)

Stars: Michael Maloney, Ruby Stokes, Emily Carey

Synopsis: The film follows the journey of Kitty, the imaginary friend to whom Anne Frank dedicated her diary. A fiery teenager, Kitty wakes up in the near future in Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam and embarks on a journey to find Anne, who she believes is still alive, in today’s Europe. While the young girl is shocked by the modern world, she also comes across Anne’s legacy.

It’s hard to assess the impact of Anne Frank on western discourse in 2022. For some, she is a shining beacon of hope and humanity amidst the brutality of the Holocaust. For others, she is the often maligned homework assignment you really don’t want to do. A generation knows her in terms of what she represents and what lessons we need to learn from her, but seldom do you hear about the girl herself. For she was just that: a young girl writing to an imaginary friend about the things young girls write about. For all that her tragic circumstance may have forced her to grow up much earlier than she should have, Frank’s innocence and playfulness are rarely explored. 

It’s perhaps this that Ari Folman is addressing in his latest, Where Is Anne Frank, a strangely childish – and sometimes startlingly naive – fantasy set predominantly in the present day as it looks at the impact Frank has had in her native Amsterdam. The animation is, at times, incredible and engaging. For instance, the scene in which Frank and her boyfriend Peter travel inside the radio their fathers are listening intently to for news of the war effort. However, even in this moment the sound quality is sadly lacking both in terms of its matching with the mouth movements of the characters, as well as the poor quality of acting. It’s a baffling decision given the quality of the animation and the pedigree of Folman himself, whose animation in Waltz With Bashir was an incredible and incendiary look at the Lebanese invasion of the early 80s. 

It is Amsterdam in the near future. In the Anne Frank house, now a museum, a lightning strike occurs, causing the glass case around Frank’s famous diary to shatter. From the pages now exposed to the air erupts a colorful spiral, which becomes that of Frank’s imaginary friend Kitty, whom she addressed in her diary. Kitty is lost, scared, and confused. She heads out into the city to find her friend. As she wanders through Amsterdam, she discovers a city much changed from the one she remembers, a city which bears Frank’s name on many of its institutions: Anne Frank Library, Anne Frank School, and so on. With Frank’s diary in hand, Kitty suddenly becomes a target for the police and finds shelter with refugees, whilst also falling in love with a young street kid, also named Peter. 

Much of Folman’s narrative here falls to cliché: juxtaposing the Holocaust with the current refugee crisis feels a little too on-the-nose, an imaginary girl with powers that no one seems to find very strange stretches credulity, and the dialogue itself is cringe-inducing at times. There is some strange dissonance that a director of Folman’s talent could produce such a Saturday morning infomercial of a movie. 

Our protagonist here is Kitty, and perhaps the first thing about Kitty should be that she is memorable. Alas, Kitty is nothing more than a narrative cipher, meant to drag us from place to place so that we might witness the troubles of European politics firsthand and ask ourselves why nothing has changed since Frank’s day. It feels condescending at best, and completely ignorant at worst. To contrast the glorified Frank of modern day with her actual flesh-and-blood counterpart, Kitty reads through the diary in order to revisit her memories of Frank. This leads to the movie’s best moments, few of them though there are. We get to see the teenage girl Frank was and experience a little of what she must have went through: a birthday party is cut short as demonic Nazis in expressionless white masks march through the streets; Frank must share her room with a strange man – a dentist – who is also hiding from persecution; Frank’s father Otto trying his best to keep up his family’s spirits during an emotionally devastating upheaval. These moments make you wish we were treated to a straightforward adaptation of Anne Frank’s life instead of this bizarre tale wrapped around it.

In the present day, Kitty’s relationship with Peter feels forced, a way to serve the plot rather than an organic love story. Peter’s dialogue is among the worst – a moment where he tells Kitty to use her powers of invisibility to avoid detection by the police in particular comes off as phoney and almost unintentionally comedic – and the actor voicing him is, unfortunately, not up to the task of conveying the many complex emotions Peter must deal with.

Perhaps Folman’s worst crime here comes in the third act, where Kitty essentially becomes a white savior to the many African refugees who hide her from the police. As Folman comes perilously close to suggesting the current migrant crisis is analogous to that of the Holocaust – which does a disservice to both situations and ignores the many complex grey areas between the two – Kitty essentially robs these refugees of any agency. This is made more uncomfortable by the fact that Frank herself coded Kitty as a red-haired white girl, who was specifically non-Jewish. She did this, one imagines, to keep Kitty safe from what she knew then to be the persecution of Jewish peoples. However, there is a certain discomfort from watching a white girl with red hair save the day, thus marginalizing the group she is trying to save.

There are things to like about Where Is Anne Frank. The animation is beautiful, Tristan Oliver’s cinematography is utterly sublime in his use of dynamic camerawork, and the color palette is exquisite, especially in the flashback scenes. The message, too, is admirable. Given the rise of white nationalism, the closing of borders, and anti-refugee sentiment, Where Is Anne Frank is a timely, and necessary story. It’s just a shame Folman chose to tell that story in this way.


Grade – D

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