Let's say it right up front: The four-hour television miniseries "Anne Frank" is the most powerful film on the Holocaust in recent memory, not excepting the fabled "Schindler's List."
The conclusion comes as a surprise, not least to this reviewer. Who would have thought that a commercial network could create such a film, shorn of false sentimentality, on an icon as thoroughly explored and exploited as Anne Frank, the most famous diarist of World War II?
The second surprise is how much we didn't know about Anne's life, even after all the books, plays, movies and documentaries. For Anne's life didn't begin in June 1942, when she went into hiding and started her diary, and it didn't end in August 1944, when her "secret annex" was discovered.
"Anne Frank" airs from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. May 20 and 21. Because of the concentration camp scenes, the film may not be suitable for younger children.
The telefilm is not based on the diary -- due to copyright disputes, not a single line from her writing is used -- but on the thoroughly researched 1998 biography of Anne by German writer Melissa Muller.
We first meet Anne in 1939 as a precocious 9-year-old schoolgirl of whom her father observes, "God knows everything, but Anne knows everything better." We see her last, emaciated, her clothes filthy and torn, ridden with lice and typhus, just before her death in March 1945 in Bergen-Belsen, weeks before the camp's liberation.
Those familiar only with the original "Diary of a Young Girl" -- which has sold 25 million copies in 55 languages -- and its feel-good assertion that "I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart," will be shaken by the ABC production.
The rough edges of daily life in the warehouse hiding place, especially Anne's views of her parents' loveless marriage, which had been expurgated by Otto Frank, are explored in the film, as they are in the latest revised edition of the diary.
But the film's wrenching impact hits hardest in the last hour, after the eight occupants of the secret annex are arrested, transferred to a Dutch transit camp, then sent by sealed box cars to Auschwitz, and, for Anne, her sister Margot and their mother, to the final destination of Bergen-Belsen.
There are horrifying scenes at the camps, where the women are stripped naked, their hair shorn and their wedding rings wrenched from their fingers. Even the most blasé viewer of past Holocaust movies and documentaries will be shaken by the depiction of routine life at Bergen-Belsen: the fierce struggles for a piece of bread or pair of socks, and, especially, the day-by-day decline of Anne, as she sinks into an abyss of filth, disease and hopelessness.
The impressive cast is headed by Hannah Taylor Gordon, a 14-year-old Londoner who has never had a formal acting lesson. Gordon, who is not Jewish, bears a remarkable physical resemblance to Anne Frank and portrays her from age 9 to 15, from happy schoolgirl to scarecrow Bergen-Belsen inmate, with astonishing fidelity.
Veteran actor Ben Kingsley plays Otto Frank, Anne's father, in a restrained performance, and pays Gordon the ultimate compliment by judging her the best leading lady he has encountered in a long professional career.
Others sharing the hiding place and Anne's ultimate fate are Brenda Blethyn, Tatjana Blacher, Joachim Krol, Jessica Manley, Nick Audsley and Jan Niklas. Lili Taylor is Miep Gies, the Franks' lifeline to the outside world.
Rumanian-born Robert Dornhelm, who lost most of his relatives in the Holocaust, directs, and Kirk Ellis wrote the superb screenplay.
The only regret is that viewers will not be able to watch "Anne Frank" without commercial interruptions. However, in a gesture not to be underestimated in a money-driven medium, ABC has decided to keep the film's final hour free of commercials.
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