If she had lived, Anne Frank would be ninety-one this year. Her diary, technically known in English as Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl, was first published in the Netherlands in 1947. The diary has been translated into sixty-five languages, sold over thirty-five million copies and is one of the most widely-read books outside of the Bible. For all its importance, there have been only a few times that the diary itself has been used as source material for the screen. There are a lot of films about Anne, but they lean towards straight biography, which we’ll get to on another day. For now, we’re just going to look at the diary.
For those who may not know Anne’s story, she was born in Frankfurt-am-Main on June 12, 1929 to Otto and Edith Frank. Along with her older sister, Margot, Anne enjoyed an idyllic childhood, making friends with all sorts of people. When Hitler came to power in 1933, the Frank family moved to Amsterdam, where Otto had business contacts. Otto’s rationale was that since Holland had stayed neutral during the First World War, the Nazis wouldn’t bother with it. The family set up house in 37 Merwedeplein, a comfortable apartment in the River Quarter, and Otto worked as director of a pectin and spice company called Opekta.
Anne and Margot took very naturally to Dutch life, making friends and doing well in school. Unfortunately the family’s reprieve was only temporary, as the Nazis took over in May of 1940.
Gradually, the freedoms of Jews in Holland were systematically restricted. They weren’t allowed to take streetcars, ride bikes or have Christian friends. They had to wear a Star of David whenever they went out. Jewish kids had to go to Jewish schools. Jews weren’t allowed to go to concerts, movie theaters, or libraries. They couldn’t even shop when they wanted or where they wanted–all shopping had to be done in Jewish shops between three and five in the afternoon. One of Anne’s friends complained, “You’re scared to do anything, because it might be forbidden.”
Jews in Holland tried to put a good face on their situation, but they all knew the noose was tightening. Still, they did their best to keep life as normal as possible.
On Anne’s thirteenth birthday. she received a diary as a present. It was really an autograph album, and she was with Otto when he bought it for her, but she was excited all the same. For the first month her entries were pretty typical, with chitchat about ping-pong games, going to the ice cream parlor, and Hello Silberberg, a boy Anne started dating.
On July 5, 1942, everything changed. Margot received a call-up to report to a work camp, and the family decided to go into hiding immediately. Fortunately, Otto was prepared, having squirreled away canned food, furniture, and other family possessions in the back house of his office building. The family would have gone into hiding anyway, but Margot’s call-up pushed their plans forward a month.
The next day, the family disappeared, and a bookcase on hinges would soon conceal their hiding place, which Anne nicknamed Het Achterhuis, or the Secret Annexe. A few weeks later they were joined by the Van Pels family, Gusti and Hermann, along with their son, Peter. Several months later, dentist Fritz Pfeffer rounded out the group. Four of the office workers, Viktor Kugler, Johannes Kleiman, Bep Voskuijl, Miep Gies and her husband, Jan, brought the group food and news.
The Secret Annexe is very unusual for the World War Two period (see a tour here). It is basically a full-scale apartment when most hiding places were a room or a closet, or maybe under floorboards. It wasn’t uncommon for Jews in hiding, or onderduikers, as they were called in Holland, to have to change hiding places if their situation became unliveable. The Franks and the Van Pels were allowed to hide as families, which was almost unheard of, as most of the time children hid separately from their parents. They also had outside helpers who were their friends and had their best interests in mind, unlike other Jews whose helpers might have expected payment or other services rendered.
During the day, the occupants of the Annexe could only move around in stocking feet and flush the toilet outside of office hours or during lunch. They had to talk in whispers. Curtains and blackout had to be kept up at all times. This didn’t mean that life stopped, though. Anne busily recorded daily life in the Secret Annexe. Spats, food shortages, the changes she felt in her body and mind as she grew up. The war news. Her thoughts and fears of living in such an abnormal situation. What she was learning in the Annexe homeschool. When Anne and Peter had a brief romance, Anne filled lots of pages with her new experiences.
The eight Annexe occupants were betrayed by an unknown individual and arrested on August 4, 1944. After a few weeks at Westerbork, they were sent on the last train to Auschwitz and from there over half of them were moved to other camps. Only Otto survived.
Anne’s diary was saved by a mere fluke. On the day of the arrest, the officer in charge, Karl Jossef Silberbauer dumped out the briefcase where Anne kept her writings so that he could nip some of the family’s possessions. Later, after the Annexe occupants had been taken away, Miep, Bep, and a warehouseman picked up all of the papers they could find and Miep stuck them in her desk drawer. She also took books and other belongings to keep for them in hopes that they would come back.
It was a good thing too, because the Annexe was emptied by a moving firm called Puls, which was contracted by the Nazis to seize Jewish property. Except for a little bit of rubbish and a few housewares, the Annexe was completely stripped bare.
When Otto learned that Anne and Margot were gone, Miep gave him Anne’s diary. At first he kept it to himself, but then he started sending bits to his mother, and soon had the idea of publishing it. It was tough going because no one wanted to relive the war, but an article in Het Parool stoked interest, and Het Achterhuis was published in 1947. Other editions in different languages followed, with the English translation coming out in 1952.
Naturally, Broadway came calling. Novelist Meyer Levin very badly wanted to write a play version of the diary, but Otto wasn’t too keen on the idea. In Levin’s mind, Otto thought Levin’s interpretation was too Orthodox. The Franks were Reformed and therefore not stringently religious, and Otto wanted the play to be as universal as possible.
Well, that was part of the reasoning. Otto knew Levin would never admit how bad his play really was, so he drew up a contract with him that stated Levin had to submit the play to fourteen producers, and if any of them accepted it, Levin could go ahead and put on his play. However, funnily enough, producer after producer rejected the play, so Otto granted the production rights to Kermit Bloomgarden. Levin was furious and took his fight to the New York State Supreme Court, which is another story in and of itself, but in the end, he was out and there was nothing he could do about it.
Enter Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett, the famous husband-and-wife writing team. They were under contract to MGM at the time, but were allowed to write the play. In adapting the play, their main obstacle was that while the diary springs from Anne’s head, there were other characters who would always be present and would need to be developed. It took them two years and eight drafts to finish the play. The production ran for 717 performances between October of 1955 and June of 1957. It won five awards, including a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Where Broadway goes, Hollywood soon follows, and vice versa. Twentieth Century Fox bought the rights to the play, which the Hacketts adapted for the screen. It was directed by George Stevens, a veteran of the Army Signal Corps and who helped film Dachau when it was liberated by the Allies. A few of the actors from the play, including Joseph Schildkraut and Gusti Huber, reprised their roles in the film, but Susan Strasburg was unavailable.
When it came to finding an actress to replace Strasburg, George Stevens first had Audrey Hepburn in mind. Hepburn had lived in Holland during the war and spoke fluent Dutch. She was even the same age as Anne. However, Hepburn turned down the part because Anne’s diary brought up too many visceral reactions in her; during the war she saw trains taking Jewish people to the concentration camps. She also felt that at thirty she was way too old to play a young teenager.
Stevens tried to persuade her; he even brought Otto Frank to meet with Hepburn, but it was still a no-go. Hepburn did develop a warm relationship with Otto Frank, whom she met periodically over the years.
Stevens cast a wide net, looking all over the world for a new Anne. She didn’t have to look just like Anne, or even be a professional actress, but she had to capture some of her spirit. Hundreds of hopefuls auditioned, and Millie Perkins from New Jersey was chosen. Nineteen at the time, she was a model and having lunch with her sister when a talent scout approached her about auditioning.
While both the play and the film took a ton of liberties with the historical record and even the look of the Annexe, Stevens chose to keep everything else as accurate as possible. He kept a tape player next to him and played audio samples of police sirens and Hitler’s Nuremburg speech to up the tension on the set and it worked. Every time they heard those sounds the cast would freeze and hold their breaths. According to TCM, Stevens even had the crew vary the temperature of the soundstage to match the seasons at the different points of the story. It was a very intense film to shoot, but it paid off. Diary received generally good reviews and is thought to be one of the best films of 1959.
However, the movie is considered by some to be too slick and Hollywood-ized. I don’t, personally, even though there are some parts of it that are definitely fictional, like Otto finding the diary in the attic instead of Miep handing it to him later. I still enjoy it, and I think the cast is fantastic.
Again, most of the later films about Anne have veered toward straight biography, seeing as we know more about her now than we did in the nineteen-fifties. The few adaptations that have been done, though, have been TV movies in various countries.
One of these is the 2009 BBC production, starring Ellie Kendrick as Anne. I saw part of this on PBS some years ago and I remember enjoying it, but it felt like the actors zoomed through their lines. It’s definitely well-worth a look, though.
Another adaptation is 2016’s Das Tagebuch der Anne Frank, or The Diary of Anne Frank. The film is the first German language adaptation of the diary, and instead of editorializing, is a pretty straight filming of Anne’s words. Outside shots were filmed in Amsterdam, such as at the Merwedeplein, although the real Annexe wasn’t available.
The film doesn’t seem to be widely accessible in America, as the only DVDs I could find were Region 2, and the trailers I saw didn’t have English subtitles, but from what I could tell the filmmakers nailed it. Here’s hoping the movie gets a wider audience someday.
Probably the most unusual adaptation to come down the pike is the Anne Frank House’s YouTube series, which has just gone online this year. Only this version has a twist: What if Anne had a camera instead of a diary? Episodes began posting just around the time when countries were locking down because of the coronavirus, and the Anne Frank Foundation hopes the series can entertain and inspire a whole new generation.
While I’m not at all part of the new generation, of course, when I found out about this series on Instagram, I was tremendously excited and made a beeline for YouTube. Unfortunately, due to copyright laws, the series isn’t available in the United States, so I had to content myself with the photos and clips from the press packet. I only know a few words of Dutch, but I was kind of able to figure out what was going on. The little bit I saw looked awesome, although the idea of vlogging when one can’t talk above a whisper for most of the day seems a little dicey. Plus it’s a little odd for people who are under threat to mug for the camera as if they’re on vacay. Still, it’s an interesting idea.
One of the reasons the diary made (and still makes) a big impression is that it is extremely articulate and well-written for a girl Anne’s age. She matured very quickly both as a person and as a writer, and her prose style is funny, direct, and vivid. People not only mourn Anne’s death as well as that of the other Annexe inhabitants, but it’s hard not to imagine what she would have done had she survived. Or what any of Hitler’s victims would have done had they survived. It’ll be interesting to see how the diary is approached in the future, both as a historical document and as a tribute to millions of lives that were snuffed out.
Two days until we head to Broadway, all, and tomorrow there’s a bit of sunshine in store. Hope everyone is doing all right and staying safe. Thanks for reading…
Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl is available from Amazon. Also available is the 1959 version of The Diary of Anne Frank on all region, multi-format Blu-ray. and the 2009 BBC miniseries on DVD.
Ferrer, Sean Hepburn. Audrey Hepburn, An Elegant Spirit. New York: Atria Books, 2003.
Frank, Anne. The Diary Of A Young Girl. New York: Doubleday, 1952 (English edition)
The Diary of Anne Frank: The Critical Edition. Prepared by the Netherlands State Institute For War Documentation. New York: Doubleday, 1986.
Müller, Melissa. Anne Frank: The Biography. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1998.
2 thoughts on “Page to Screen: The Diary of Anne Frank”
Lovely apt review Rebecca! Thanks for your thoughts on this one, it was a beautiful read.
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You’re welcome, Gill–glad you enjoyed it! Yeah, I had this one planned for a long time, and it turned out to be more appropos than I was expecting. C’est la vie, I guess.