The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) dir. George Stevens
Starring: Millie Perkins, Joseph Schildkraut, Richard Beymer, Shelley Winters, Ed Winn, Gusti Huber
George Stevens’ version of the Anne Frank, adapted from the stage play “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl”, tells the story of the many months of hiding by the Dutch 13-year old and her family from the Nazis during WWII. The Hollywood touch is certainly applied to this story, mostly for the better than worse, but without sacrifice to an inspired directorial stamp of authorship from a great director.
Most of us know the story of Anne Frank by now, perhaps not so much in 1959. In a flashforward we see Otto Frank returning to his hiding place in Amsterdam after the War – the only survivor of his family and friends who lived there during Nazi occupation of Amsterdam. Flashing back we see group taken in by the courageous Khaler family to live hidden away in the attic of their spice factory. There’s father and mother, Otto and Edith, daughters Anne and Margot, and four members of the Van Daan family and their cat. Later old curmudgeon Mr. Dussell would join the group.
The group must adhere to strict rules in order not to be seen or heard by the workers below – during the working day, shoes must be off and words spoken only whispers. In the evening there are free to talk, sing, listen to the radio etc. But never, ever can they leave the attic. A romance develops between young Anne and Van Daan’s son Peter much to the dismay of Anne’s older sister Margot. As the years go by the tight space causes much conflict between the two families testing their perseverance.
At three hours, it’s an intimidating film to approach, yet Stevens’ sets a surprisingly brisk pace with barely a lull. A number of suburb set pieces elevate the picture to auteur-worthy cinematic art, specifically, the impeccably-crafted Nazi-search sequence. In the middle of the night, after a thief breaks into the factory office below and leaves the door wide open, the Nazi street patrol suspects some foul play. As they search the building and come within a foot of discovering the hiding spot Stevens’ intercuts to the family frozen like mannequins maintaining their silence as well as their adventurous cat which threatens to expose them all. It’s a scene as tense and stylistically assured as anything by Hitchcock.
Though by 1959 there had been films set in concentration camps and the Holocaust, Hollywood was still bound to the limitations of the production code and its studio aesthetic. By 2009, we’ve seen numerous dramatic films and documentares either about the Holocaust or set during the Holocaust told with various ranges of dramatic realism and remembrance.
Thus with today’s eyes “The Diary of Anne Frank” might appear to be a softened, Hollywoodized version of the story. Specifically the casting of newbie, Millie Perkins (aged 20) as a 13-year old and her romance with Richard Beymer’s Peter Van Daan character drastically threatens the realism and integrity of the film. As well Stevens' decision not to show the horror’s of the concentration camp. It’s a choice not made out of fear of the subject matter, but in storytelling terms, Frank’s diary is a complete and separate story than her life in the camps.
William Mellor’s stark, high contrast B&W cinematography in bold widescreen cinemascope won him an Oscar. According to Stevens’ son who also served as Associate Producer and second unit director, the widescreen process was not preferred by the director for this picture. Stevens lobbied for a then more traditional full frame aspect ratio to compliment the claustrophobic interior of the hideout. Since the wideangle scope puts much more of the set in frame, it becomes difficult to cut together shots in small spaces. Though the demands of the studio won out Stevens' blocking and visual design are stunning and his ability to maintain editorial control between his shots is miraculous.
“The Diary of Anne Frank” would be Stevens’ last great film – depending on your opinion of ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’. On the new Blu-Ray look for the treasured 16mm color footage shot by Stevens during WWII. His dedication to documenting and preserving on film the war and the aftermath of the Holocaust clearly fed into his passion for making the Anne Frank story an important film.
“The Diary of Anne Frank: 50th Anniversary” is available on Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment