`Frank' delves into unsettling territory

Review: As an American culture, we've finally dared ourselves to visualize the tragic final moments of Anne Frank's life.

May 19, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

"Landmark" is a word used too often in criticism. But "Anne Frank," a four-hour miniseries starting tomorrow night on ABC, is landmark in terms of television's depiction of the Holocaust.

That's all the more remarkable because this season has been especially rich in terms of Holocaust productions. In February, we had "Haven," a CBS miniseries about Ruth Gruber and the 982 Jewish refugees she helped rescue from Hitler's Germany.

What made it different is that a Jew, not a gentile such as Oskar Schindler, was rescuing Jews. It's a historic narrative that has been too seldom told in television and film.

Last month, Showtime gave us "Varian's Way," another moving docudrama about Jews being rescued from Hitler's death machine. New ground was broken here, too, in that refugees weren't depicted as one-dimensional objects of pity, which too often is the case. In "Varian's Way," they included the likes of artist Marc Chagall and philosopher Hannah Arendt. Viewers were given individualized portraits of artists and intellectuals who had held strong opinions and, in a few cases, could be accused of being abrasive and snobbish to their rescuers.

Another fine film about the Holocaust premieres tonight at 9 on HBO. "Conspiracy," starring Kenneth Branagh, Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth, tells the story of 15 men meeting in a villa outside Berlin in 1942 to draft the blueprint for what came to be known as the Final Solution - Hitler's maniacal plan to slaughter European Jews.

What's most impressive about the film is that in 90 minutes, it undoes decades of images that portray the Nazi high command as monolithic. This is brought home by the performances of Branagh as Reinhard Heydrich, who chaired the meeting, and Firth as Wilhelm Stuckart, who had devised the "Nuremberg Laws" that codified Jewishness in Nazi Germany. Showing the intellectual debate and in-fighting among these leaders somehow makes the final death plan they draft even more evil.

But none of these productions is nearly as daring or ultimately moving as ABC's "Anne Frank," based on Melissa Muller's 1998 book, "Anne Frank: The Biography."

This is the book that gave us Anne as a human being instead of Anne, the icon of goodness. She could be every bit as selfless - and self-absorbed - as any other teen-age girl. The ABC movie, thanks to an unflinching script by Kirk Ellis ("Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows") and a brilliant performance by Hannah Taylor Gordon ("Jakob the Liar"), brings that same Anne to the screen. Knowing this child as a human being makes her story even more heart-rending.

As splendid as Gordon's performance is, the finest work on screen is that of Ben Kingsley, as Otto Frank, Anne's father. Is Kingsley ever not terrific?

What distinguishes his work here is how he underplays almost everything, with the effect of throwing Gordon's flamboyant emotions as Anne into even higher relief. Lili Taylor ("I Shot Andy Warhol"), as Miep Gies, the family friend who made it possible for the Franks to hide in a secret annex in Amsterdam, makes every scene she is in something special.

But what makes this film landmark is that it takes us beyond the annex and into the death camps where the Frank family was taken after they were betrayed to the Nazis. Previous American movies and plays ended with the arrival of the Nazis, emphasizing the diary Anne left behind, and the triumph of her words through the years.

There's a reason that Hollywood films and Broadway plays felt the need to end the story there: The truth of the Holocaust is still too horrible to be fully faced by our culture, according to Stephen J. Whitfield, a Brandeis University professor of American Studies, in his book, "In Search of American Jewish Culture."

Whitfield cites William Dean Howells' scathing assessment of American taste - "What the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending" - and chronicles the absurd lengths directors as talented as Elia Kazan have gone to avoid giving us the truth about Anne's final days.

"In 1945, the 15-year-old inmate of typhus-ridden Bergen-Belsen was last seen shivering in the cold, covered with only a blanket," Whitfield writes. "What was left of her physically had been reduced to bones and tears."

The ending on ABC's "Anne Frank" is more horrible than even that. You should be warned, and ABC should be commended for taking us there - even if it took us 55 years as a culture to get there.

`Anne Frank'

Where: WMAR (Channel 2).

When: Tomorrow and Monday nights at 9.

In brief: Landmark in the truth it tells.

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