Where is Anne Frank: a warm, uncynical tribute to victims of persecution

Ari Folman’s third animated feature is another risky departure in tone – but this time, the director is largely successful.

Where is Anne Frank (2021)

Ari Folman’s three animated feature films vary radically in tone. Waltz with Bashir (2008), one of the great animated films of the last couple of decades, is an unflinching depiction of the experiences of an Israeli soldier during the 1982 Lebanon War. This was followed by The Congress (2013), a bloated folly whose aesthetics recall prog-rocky cartoons of the 1970s, and which features Robin Wright as herself in a world where she agrees to be preserved as an ageless digital avatar. It’s an overblown failure that nonetheless boasts some impressive moments.

Now he has created a film aimed at young adults in which we meet Kitty, the fictional confidante conjured up by Anne Frank in her diary. Kitty, still a young teenager, awakens ‘one year from now’ in the Anne Frank House and, diary in tow, determines to find out what has happened to her friend.

When Anne, who we meet in flashbacks, first creates Kitty, she describes, with typical boldness, how her new friend will have “my spark, my smile, my wisdom and of course my sense of humour”. Kitty’s reactions to today’s world are, to an extent, intended to reflect Anne’s. Just as in her diary, Anne, and therefore Kitty, is funny, irreverent and relatable. Anne’s brash disdain for boys and mockery of the prim Auguste van Pels, referred to as ‘Madame’, with whom she is forced to share living space, remind the viewer of her personality, rather than the myth later built up around her. Meanwhile, Ruby Stokes puts in strong voice work as Kitty, who transforms from adolescent innocent into determined activist as the film develops.

As in his previous works, Folman startles with his animation choices. Whenever she is separated too far from the diary, Kitty starts to fade into swirls of wet ink. Wehrmacht soldiers, their faces appearing as skull-like masks, march down streets as a unified mass of death and destruction. Anne’s fantasies veer from the merry – an escape from the Nazis with Clarke Gable as her saviour, a magical trip inside a wireless – to the sinister, with visions of the Underworld and the River Styx evoking the concentration camps. Present-day Amsterdam, with bustling trams and frozen canals scarred by skate marks, is beautifully realised. There are a number of chase scenes, where Kitty flees with the diary with the police in pursuit, which shows off Folman’s flair for animation at its most energetic.

Throughout the film Folman draws parallels with the treatment of Jews by the Nazis and the forced deportations from the Netherlands of families fleeing war zones; the movie’s opening scene of the film shows a tent, sheltering a family of refugees, being blown away in a storm outside the Anne Frank House. Channelling Anne, Kitty is horrified by the inhumane disregard for human life and becomes determined to save the refugee families. Here, in a rare mis-step, Where is Anne Frank swerves into white saviour territory, particularly in the final scenes, which fail to convince. Teenagers, rather than adults, will likely be the most receptive audiences to the film, willing to excuse the moments of naivety – understandable, given the age of the diary’s author.

The film gently critiques the misguided deification of Anne Frank, as the sentiments of her diary are relentlessly ignored by authorities in favour of naming buildings and monuments after her. In a moment of sly humour, Kitty watches a shoddy stage biopic of Anne’s life at an ‘Anne Frank Theatre’, in which her friend is portrayed by an actor hamming and, in Kitty’s view, misquoting her line about the innate goodness of humanity. A boy who first appears stealing wallets from tourists visiting the Anne Frank House, an act of apparently immoral cynicism, proves to be one of the heroes of the film – at least he is not in thrall to the misguided cult of Anne.

Anne’s relationships with the female characters is sensitively handled, not just with Kitty, but also with her sister and her mother. Her sister, Margot, envies Anne’s confidence and charisma, while Anne holds her mother in open disdain, until tragedy unites them in one of the film’s most moving scenes. A closing intertitle states that Where is Anne Frank is dedicated to his parents, both Holocaust survivors, who arrived at Auschwitz on the same week as the Frank family. Ultimately, Folman’s film is a warm, uncynical tribute to all those who have faced persecution, past and present.

► Where is Anne Frank is in UK cinemas now.