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 Where Is Anne Frank. Given that the Anne we meet in the film is an ardent movie fan, it’s fitting that Kitty’s exploits cover a Hollywood-style narrative range — historical drama, action-adventure, romance, social commentary. There’s a lot going on in this feature — at times too much, although that surfeit of story is designed to click with the younger viewers the film aims to reach.
The son of Auschwitz survivors, Folman set out to make the first international Holocaust film for young people, ages 12 and up. In collaboration with the foundation established by Frank’s father, Otto, he and his filmmaking team have developed an accompanying educational program as well. There’s an instructive element to the film, and adult audiences likely will find one or two passages conspicuously didactic. Despite this, and putting aside the occasionally convoluted plotting, Where Is Anne Frank spins around exceptionally engaging central characters, expresses the story’s unspeakable sadness with eloquence and sensitivity, and winningly captures the intelligence, humor and adolescent exuberance so evident in photographs of Anne Frank and in her writing.
Working with animation director Yoni Goodman, whose innovative work gave Folman’s 2008 documentary, Waltz With Bashir, its hauntingly distinctive look, the filmmaker has taken another novel approach, placing 2D characters against stop-motion backgrounds. In its depiction of Amsterdam, where the story is largely set (with a heartrending visit to present-day Bergen-Belsen, the concentration camp where Frank died), there’s an architectural integrity to match the historical one.
Most of the action revolves around the Anne Frank House — in its contemporary status as a world-famous museum and during its use from 1942 to 1944 as the secret annex where the Franks and the van Pels (called the Van Damms in the diaries and this film) hid from the Nazis. In the present day, designated for the sake of narrative license as “a year from now,” museumgoers queue up in a blustery storm. Sowing the seeds of a subplot, a family of refugees from Mali, living on the street, struggle to save their tent from the violent winds.
On special exhibit inside is Anne’s original diary, with its red plaid cover and pages overflowing with her cursive writing. Through a serendipitous collision of weather and magic, the book’s glass display case shatters, an antique fountain pen is brought to life, and Kitty (voiced by Ruby Stokes) materializes from the lines of ink. She’s a resourceful and willowy redheaded teen with a fierce devotion to her creator, Anne (Emily Carey, whose unforced soulfulness matches that of Stokes), and she has no idea that she’s stepping into another world, 75 years after the girls last communicated.
Kitty’s baffled to find an endless stream of strangers crowding into Anne’s bedroom, peering at its sparse furnishings and the fangirl movie-star photos hanging on its walls. Kitty is invisible to them. The logic of when she can and can’t be seen is explained to her — and us — by Peter (Ralph Prosser), a young street kid whose skills as a pickpocket would make Robert Bresson smile. According to the somewhat shaky logic, whether she’s visible or not, the diary is the crucial puzzle piece she needs. She removes it from the museum as she embarks on her quest for Anne, and the missing diary becomes the city’s top story, a 100,000-euro reward in the offing.
The film’s title refers to Kitty’s search, but it’s also something of an accusation, a reminder that totems of cultural significance like the diary can become cast in amber, detached from their meaning. In the contemporary setting, Anne Frank’s name emblazons a hospital, theater, bridge and school. At the same time, the government is cracking down on war refugees and refusing to grant them asylum. Among the seekers is the Malian family from the opening sequence, whose young daughter Awa (Naomi Mourton) charms Kitty with her dazzling knack for cat’s cradle.
In a more subtle paradox than the immigrant issue, before the diary goes missing the police break into the museum — the same building where two families lived in fear of the authorities for two treacherous years — in order to protect the prized book from suspected vandals. One policeman (voiced by Folman with a slurry of the weary, the snide and the sincere) pronounces the diary “the biggest spiritual treasure this country’s produced since Rembrandt,” as if repeating a memorized line.
Trading in vintage jewelry for fast fashion, Kitty plays the part of a modern girl (with the musical contributions of Karen O and Ben Goldwasser heightening the metamorphosis). But when she reads the diary she’s likely to shift back into Anne’s world. (Again, the magic’s logic is of the delicate just-go-with-it variety.) Through the girls’ openhearted conversations, Kitty learns of the Nazis’ targeting of Jews and comes to understand the day-to-day realities of life during the occupation for Anne, her parents (Michael Maloney and Samantha Spiro) and her sister, Margot (Skye Bennett). On the streets, the SS loom as stylized, towering figures with death’s-head masks. Within the Franks’ clandestine quarters, new boarder Albert Dussel (Andrew Woodall) brings harrowing news of “the East,” where the machinery of extermination is in motion.
Scenes of the war-era past pulse with the perspective of a bright, perceptive teen. Folman doesn’t deny the weight of fear and oppressiveness — indeed, he builds to it powerfully. But he makes sure to give time and space to the joys that shaped Anne’s privileged youth before the dark days took hold. A rundown of the boys who loved her, presented in the whimsical form of a parade, bursts with color and zingy schoolgirl language, 1940s-style: “He’s a tough guy, but he’s a brat,” she declares of one unqualified hopeful. In another scene the image on a jigsaw puzzle comes to life, and there’s a wonderfully wry commercial for the company Otto Frank works for, complete with a Felix the Cat look-alike.
Anne’s budding romance with the shy Peter Van Damm (Sebastian Croft) is paralleled by Kitty’s with her more worldly-wise Peter. The latter pair get to skate down the city’s frozen canals; back in the annex, the greatest adventure Anne and Peter can muster is an imaginary exploration of a radio’s innards.
The intertwined layers of history and imagination fuel the drama with greater urgency as it moves toward the awful days after the Franks were discovered in their hiding place. With high emotion and thriller tension, a bravura sequence interweaves Kitty’s ride on a passenger train with Anne’s forced ride to the dreaded East. Folman doesn’t depict the camps explicitly, but he taps into the enormity of their horror: a Hades incarnate for Anne, a born writer with a love of Greek mythology.
That the film’s lessons about intolerance are still urgent is hardly news. And yet there’s something surprisingly urgent in the way Folman and company turn clean, simple lines into full-blooded characters. It’s not kid stuff the way Anne’s brow furrows with worry, and the tears of her beloved Kitty, when she learns what happened to Anne, just might knock you sideways.
By: Sheri Linden