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'Where is Anne Frank' debuts at Cannes

July 13, 2021

A response to rising antisemitism, Israeli director Ari Folman's animated film of Anne Frank's diary and life also addresses the struggles of young refugees today.

a girl lies next to her diary on a bed and faced another woma
Anne Frank and her alter-ego Kitty come to life in Ari Folman's vivid animationImage: Purple Whale Films

The Diary of Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl's outpouring of her hopes and dreams as she hid from the Nazis in Amsterdam during World War II, was adapted into an Oscar-winning film a decade or so after the book was published in 1947. Nearly 75 years later, the story has again been re-imagined for the screen, this time as an animated film that has made a big impact since debuting last week at the Cannes Film Festival.

This version of the story focuses on Kitty, Anne Frank's imaginary friend and alter-ego, to whom the girl devoted her diary. Set in present-day Amsterdam and across Europe, Kitty sets out to find Anne Frank by reflecting back on the contents of the diary. But the film is also a romance, an adventure, the story of a witty teenager who loves life, who looks up to her sister Margot and is often in conflict with her mother.

Emerging in current day Europe 75 years after her character was conceived, Kitty also meets other young people who are in danger and fleeing conflict.

"That reminds Kitty of Anne and the fact that Anne did not have an opportunity to flee during her relatively short time in hiding," noted Israeli director Ari Folman, who was nominated for an Oscar for 2008's Waltz with Bashir, an animated story of the Lebanon War. "This experience turns Kitty into an activist. At the same time, she realizes her powers to promote a movement for children's rights."

children celebrating on the streets with mounted horsemen in the background
The film portrays Anne Frank's happy childhood in her adopted home of Amsterdam before the Nazi invasion Image: Purple Whale Films

A labor of love

The Anne Frank Fonds Basel, which was founded by Anne's father Otto Frank after the war, approached Folman eight years ago with the idea of an animation movie.

"They were looking for a new dimension to tell the Holocaust story," said Folman, who himself is the child of Auschwitz survivors. "Then came the idea to revive Kitty in the leading role and make her the protagonist of the movie — the narrator."

Animation was deemed to be the most effective medium to appeal to a new generation and communicate the links between the Holocaust, discrimination and antisemitism.

"Today, we see populism, right-wing extremism, even fascism, and definitely racism and xenophobia in various countries," said producer Jani Thiltges. "I don't believe a film can change anything, but I believe it's important that, as filmmakers, we do everything to fulfill our hope of films playing a part in reintroducing a different mental and political attitude."

an animated film still shows three young women confronted by Nazi-like soldiers
A response to rising antisemitism and Holocaust denial around the world, the film paints a vivid picture of the evils of German fascism Image: Purple Whale Films

Appealing to teens

The film's artistic director, Lena Grubman, said that the use of animation was to make the film "more accessible" to a generation of young teenagers who have grown up with the internet and who are perhaps less likely to read Frank's book. 

The first film to tell the story of Anne Frank entirely in drawings, the production employs a vivid animation style to draw the viewer into the story and utlized 159,000 individual drawings created in 15 countries.

The end result has been praised by critics after it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last week. "Kitty, the imaginary friend addressed in Anne Frank's diaries, jumps off the page as a pen-and-ink version of a flesh-and-blood girl in Ari Folman's vividly rendered [film]," wrote the Hollywood Reporter.    

Where is Anne Frank also appeals to this young audience through humorous pop culture vignettes, like when superstar singer Justin Bieber appears at the Anne Frank Museum. The film also features a lively soundtrack by Karen O of the band the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. 

Despite the devastating backstory, it's ultimately a film that should be enjoyed by teenagers. 

Contemporary reflections on young refugees

Employing sequences in the present at the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam merged with the past as Kitty carries on conversations with Anne, the film is especially focused on addressing the contemporary struggles of young refugees fleeing conflict.

Armed with Anne Frank's diary, Kitty is helped in her quest by friend Peter, who runs a secret shelter for undocumented refugees. Together, they retrace Anne's life in her hidden annex with her family to its tragic end as she becomes another victim of the Holocaust.

"[Kitty] also discovers the current situation in Europe, flooded with refugees from all over the world, running away from war zones," explained Ari Folman.

Disillusioned by the injustices that child refugees endure, Kitty wants to fulfill Anne's mission and provide hope for future generations.

"After Kitty has found out that Anne had died and then discovered the stone at Bergen-Belsen bearing her name, she writes her a letter and promises her to realize Anne's dream to save every person who can be saved," said Folman. "And she promises to fulfil Anne's dream of falling in love. It's a kind of oath of friendship among those two girls."

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.
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