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Anne Frank in film

Heike Mund / egMarch 6, 2015

The short life of the young diary writer, Anne Frank, has inspired numerous filmmakers in the 70 years since she died in a Nazi concentration camp. Now, the first German-made feature is in the works.

Ben Kingsley as Otto Frank in "The Diary of Anne Frank" from 2001, Copyright: picture alliance/United Archives/IFTN
Image: picture alliance/United Archives/IFTN

Although her official death certificate noted her date of birth (June 12, 1929), her last residence (Amsterdam, Merwedenplan 37) and the date she was deported (August 8, 1944), it does not mention the exact day she died.

Only the month of Anne Frank's death in the Nazi concentration camp in Bergen-Belsen is confirmed. According to eye-witnesses, it may have been on March 12, 1945 that she died of exhaustion and typhus in the camp. She was only 15 years old.

Seventy years later, the biography of the young girl continues to touch hearts world-wide. Countless films, documentaries and television series have been made about her, including a Japanese manga.

The first attempts

"The Diary of Anne Frank" was the first film adaptation of her story. The successful producer and US director George Stevens, winner of the Oscar for Best Director for "Giant" in 1956, was hired to direct the film in 1959. He had experienced Nazi occupation firsthand as an officer for the US Army in charge of a film unit which covered major events of the war, such as the Allies D-Day invasion of Normandy, General de Gaulle's glorious march into Paris and the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp near Munich. The filmmaker was well acquainted with the background of Anne Frank's life.

In 1956, the Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn expressed his interest in producing a film on the famous diary writer. William Wyler was set to direct. They wanted Audrey Hepburn, born the same year as Anne Frank in 1929 in Belgium, for the lead role.

Anne Frank's journal. Copyright: EPA/ADE JOHNSON
Not all film adaptations are based on Anne Frank's actual historical journalImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But the project stalled. Anne's father Otto Frank, the only Holocaust survivor in the family, owned the rights to his daughter's diary and did not like the ideas for the script. Offended, Goldwyn withdrew from the project.

Later on, Twentieth Century Fox obtained the contract. The film would be based on the successful Broadway theater adaptation, which had already been performed over 700 times. This script and a production budget of three million dollars would guarantee the production's success.

Melodramatic Hollywood film

Yet the director George Stevens managed to turn "The Diary of Anne Frank" into a melodramatic chamber play. The scriptwriters didn't change much from the eponymous play. Although a lot of money was invested in the studio film set, which reproduced the multi-story rear building, felt like a theater stage.

Europeans criticized the choice of Millie Perkins for the lead role. The German newspaper "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" wrote about her: "She is pretty and talented, but the first attribute seems to dominate." Wearing nail polish and makeup in the style of Elizabeth Taylor, she did not look like an adolescent girl who had recently received a diary for her 13th birthday.

The kitschy music was another distraction from the serious historical background of the film. The sound effects of lockstep marching, regular "Sieg Heil's" and threatening air raids didn't demonstrate strongly enough how endangered the Frank family actually was. The film was nevertheless awarded three Oscars for Best Cinematography, Best Supporting Actress and Best Art Direction.

Anne Frank Center in Berlin. Copyright: DW/Heike Mund
The poster of the first film adaptation can be seen in the Anne Frank Center in BerlinImage: DW/H. Mund

When the film came out in European cinemas, it was destroyed by bad reviews in Germany and Holland. The German magazine "Filmkritik" called it a "hackneyed love story" which didn't have much in common with the original diary. The film's sentimental conclusion, which completely suppressed the Frank family's deportation to Auschwitz, was also harshly criticized.

Historical realism

"The Diary of Anne Frank" by George Stevens, scene from the film, Copyright: picture-alliance/akg-images
George Stevens' Hollywood adaptation of Anne Frank's story obtained three OscarsImage: picture-alliance/akg-images

In contrast, the 2001 American two-part miniseries called "Anne Frank: The Whole Story" chose a more realistic approach. The actors were remarkable. The 14-year-old Hannah Taylor impersonated Anne Frank, while Ben Kingsley, who had already tackled the Holocaust as an actor in Spielberg's "Schindler's List" (1993), depicted Anne's father Otto.

The daily threats by the German occupiers, the hostilities towards Jews on the streets and the brutal deportation scenes: these are all realistically integrated in the film through black and white documentary footage.

The script is based on Melissa Müller's detailed biography, who thoroughly researched the historical context. Anne spent two years writing her diary, from June 12, 1942 to August 1944, while hiding with her family in the secret annex of their Amsterdam house.

The mini-series does not avoid the Frank family's brutal deportation to the concentration camps. Horrifying images show the dehumanization of the camps and Anne's last days, as she lies next to her sister in the barracks, completely emaciated and debilitated by typhus. There is no happy end to this story, as the film's epilogue reminds: "One and a half million children were murdered in the genocide the Nazis called 'The Final Solution.' Anne Frank's story is only one of them."

Ben Kingsley in "Schindler's List." Copyright: Picture Alliance / dpa
The British actor Ben Kingsley played a lead role in Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List"Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The American mini-series, filmed in part in Prague for a realistic European setting, received a well deserved Emmy Award in 2001.

And now a German production

More than 55 years after the first Hollywood production, Germany is now preparing its first film on Anne Frank's story. Michael Souvignier and Walid Nakschbandi will be co-producing the film. "We want to make Anne Frank's story tangible for today's youth," explains the Souvignier, who is known for tackling politically sensitive issues (such as "Contergan," which deals with Germany's thalidomide scandal).

The Anne Frank Fonds in Basel, manager of the worldwide rights of the Frank's archives, granted the production access to the entire archive material - a big leap of faith.

The young Lea von Ackeren will take up the lead role, while Martina Gedeck and Ulrich Noethen will interpret her parents. The director is Hans Steinbichler and the scriptwriter is Fred Breinerdorfer. He also wrote "13 Minutes," which recently premiered at the Berlinale, a story of a Hitler assassination attempt.

The shoot is planned for the end of March and the film will be released in the winter 2015-2016 in cinemas.