'The Diary of Anne Frank' ('Das Tagebuch der Anne Frank'): Film Review

The Diary of Anne Frank Still 2 -Lea van Acken -H 2016
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Beautifully adapted if somewhat limited.

This German-language version of the story of Anne Frank is directed by Hans Steinbichler and stars young actress Lea van Acken, alongside Martina Gedeck and Ulrich Noethen as her parents.

“Paper is more patient than people,” wrote Anne Frank in one of her first diary entries, and this is exactly what has tripped up so many adaptations of the young writer’s work, which by necessity need to cut and condense material since people don’t want to sit through a seven-hour movie or play based on her diaries. German director Hans Steinbichler’s version runs 130 minutes, which is still quite long, though the fleet screenplay by Fred Breinersdorfer comes impressively close to finding a workable entente between Anne’s WWII-era ordeal on the one hand and her inner world and keen eye for observation on the other. In Germany, where it was promoted as the first ever German-language version of Anne’s story made for the cinema, The Diary of Anne Frank (Das Tagebuch der Anne Frank) made a solid if not earth-shattering $2.7 million, with school groups no-doubt responsible for a good part of that number. Abroad, this might be slightly harder to market as a theatrical event, despite the familiar subject matter, though festivals and broadcasters will be receptive.

Some people might be forgiven for thinking Anne Frank was Dutch, since she wrote her diaries in that language and famously went into hiding with her family in Amsterdam in the Achterhuis or Secret Annex. But the Franks were Jews from Frankfurt who fled to the Netherlands to escape the increasingly hostile environment in Nazi Germany only to have their freedoms restricted again after the Nazi invasion of the Low Countries. (Technically speaking, they were stateless when most of the family died in concentration camps several years later.)

Screenwriter Breinersdorfer knows a thing or two about Nazi-era heroes from Germany, having also scripted Sophie Scholl — The Final Days, about the 21-year-old woman who was part of the White Rose non-violent resistance movement, and 13 Minutes, about Johann Georg Elser, who plotted to assassinate Hitler in 1939. Neither of them was as young as Frank, however, who was just a girl when she went into hiding and whose type of silent protest took a very intimate and verbal form, as she committed all her unfiltered thoughts, hopes and fears to the pages of the diary she’d received for her 13th birthday.

Unlike many of the previous film or stage adaptations, including the 1959 feature that won Shelley Winters her first Oscar, Steinbichler and Breinersdorfer get to work from the diary’s “definitive edition,” published in 1991, which includes parts that were redacted by Otto Frank, her father, after the war, many dealing with the girl’s budding sexuality and her difficult rapport with her mother. They are an integral part of this German adaptation and help make Anne (Lea van Acken) a very authentic and relatable teenage girl under immense duress rather than a more simplistically tragic and saintly figure. In a bold move that makes sense cinematically, Anne addresses the camera directly in much more stylized setups, with the film consciously and brutally breaking its own sense of semi-documentary reality at the most disruptive moments in Anne’s story.

As can be expected, most of the film consists of domestic scenes in the Secret Annex, where Anne finds herself holed up with her 16-year-old sister, Margot (Stella Kunkat), her parents (Ulrich Noethen, Martina Gedeck) and the Daans (Andre Jung, Margarita Broich), whose teenage son, Peter (Leonard Carow), attracts Anne’s attention. Since they couldn’t make any noise during the day and their living quarters were very small, tensions quickly came to boil there, with the strained situation, as suggested here, often a familial powder keg inside of the much larger, socio-historical powder keg that put the Franks and Daans there. Anne learns how to stand up for herself quickly and is more assertive and outgoing and than her bookish sibling, even if Margot can be relied on to pass on useful information about womanhood to her adolescent sister.

The film sketches Anne’s complex relationships with her father, mother and with Peter with great tact and depth, even if the narrative is clearly somewhat hemmed in by the necessarily limited view of the other characters that the young Anne has. When she says she’s “played a role since she arrived in the Secret Annex,” it’s a psychologically insightful remark but also one that reveals the limits of what any film adaptation can show us about the real Anne. 

Van Acken, so impressive (and impressionable) in the religious tragedy Stations of the Cross, shows a much larger range here that suggests she’s a fine actress with a solid career path ahead of her, while the supporting cast is strong. The technical credits are all impeccable to a fault, with exterior location work in Amsterdam and Sils Maria, Switzerland, the only real moments the Franks get to experience the outdoors, the better to make the dank, maroon-colored Secret Annex feel as claustrophobic and unwelcoming as possible.

Production companies: AVE, Zeitsprung Pictures, Universal Pictures International

Cast: Lea van Acken, Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Noethen, Stella Kunkat,
Andre Jung, Margarita Broich, Leonard Carow, Arthur Klemt, Gerti Drassl

Director: Hans Steinbichler

Screenplay: Fred Breinersdorfer

Producers: M. Walid Nakschbandi, Michael Souviginer

Executive producers: Till Derenbach, Daniel Mann

Director of photography: Bella Halben

Production designer: Volker Schaefer

Costume designer: Katharina Ost

Editor: Wolfgang Weigl

Music: Sebastian Pille

Casting: Franziska Aigner

Sales: Universal Pictures International


No rating, 130 minutes