Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatists Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett adapted for the screen their Broadway hit The Diary of Anne Frank, itself based on the book Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl. As reverently filmed by George Stevens, The Diary of Anne Frank is highly theatrical in tone and style, but what do you expect from a film about characters claustrophobically trapped in an attic for two years?
The story opens in 1945, then flashes back to 1942, where Anne Frank is one of eight Jews forced into hiding in WWII Amsterdam. German emigres in Holland, the Franks rely on the kindness of one Mr. Kraler (Anne's pseudonym for Victor Kugler) and young Miep Gies, among others. Anne, sister Margot (Diane Baker), mother Edith (Gusti Huber) and father Otto (Joseph Schildkraut)— installed in a hidden annex above a business office—share the space with another family, called the van Daans in Anne's diary and the subsequent adaptations: Petronella (Shelley Winters, in an Oscar-winning turn), Hans (Lou Jacobi) and sixteen-year-old son Peter (Richard Beymer of West Side Story). Later, the two families are joined by Mr. Dussel (Ed Wynn).
With actors Schildkraut, Huber and Jacobi reprising their stage roles, the film version offers a pleasing continuity from the hit play. When the stage Anne, Susan Strasberg, and second choice Audrey Hepburn turned down the role, actress/model Millie Perkins became the screen Anne. Perkins gives a sturdy, old-school performance as the blossoming thirteen-year-old who correctly predicts, "I'm going to be remarkable." A more resonant performance, and subtler writing and direction, would have made the film more artful, but as it is, Stevens pushes the sensibility of 1950s drama about as far as it can go. A dream montage features imagery of the concentration camps, and Stevens shot a finale depicting the same that was discarded after test audiences blanched.
The Diary of Anne Frank works best as a sort of Hitchcockian thriller (Lifeboat in hiding?) defined by torturous uncertainty and high tension. Everyone freezes when a siren pierces the air, and the close quarters foster arguments, jealousies and suspicion ("We don't need the Nazis to destroy us," says Mr. Frank. "We're destroying ourselves"). Matters are further complicated by how even when "interrupted," life goes on by dint of human nature. For example, Otto organizes makeshift schooling, and Hans climbs the walls with nicotine withdrawal. Most importantly, Anne's pubescent stirrings are unstoppable, and the presence of handsome and sensitive Peter cannot be denied for long. Accurately summing up the situation, Anne tells Peter, "We have problems here that no other people our age have ever had." The clinches between Anne and Peter are the film's most florid passages, though they cannot help but contribute to the film's emotional impact.
Stevens was surely the right man for the job of bringing The Diary of Anne Frank to film. Whatever its faults, the film has a depth of feeling and intention that makes its way from its director, who was forever changed by his experience shooting the liberation of the Nazi extermination camp Dachau as a member of the Army Signal Corps. Stevens gets good support from composer Alfred Newman and photographers William C. Mellor (who won the Oscar that year) and Michael Powell's go-to guy Jack Cardiff (who lensed the Amsterdam location footage). The well-received film remains a potent statement about the horrors of war and a valid testament to the girl who could answer them by writing, "I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart."
The Diary of Anne Frank comes to Blu-ray in an updated 50th Anniversary Edition mirrored on DVD. It seems unlikely that the film could or will look any better than it does on Blu-ray, in a film-like but somewhat soft transfer. Contrast is generally good (sometimes a hair blown out in the rare brightly lit moment), grain is present but never bothersome, and the source elements are a bit variable in that this longest possible cut includes about fourteen minutes of footage that was trimmed from the film for years (this version also includes the overture and exit music). A lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack does full justice to the original soundtrack, clearly prioritizing and presenting the film's dialogue, music and sound effects.
The Blu-ray includes a staggering number of bonus features, many of them brand new. For starters, there's an audio commentary with George Stevens Jr. & Millie Perkins that takes on the history of the real events and the film that sought accurately to recreate them.
"George Stevens in WWII" (7:40, SD) finds Stevens Jr. recounting his father's experiences during the war. The featurette includes generous samplings of Stevens' war footage and some comments from Diane Baker.
"The Making of The Diary of Anne Frank: A Son's Memories" (25:05, SD) allows Stevens, Jr. to reminisce about working with his father on the film, while "The Diary of Anne Frank: Memories from Millie Perkins and Diane Baker" (25:53, SD) Perkins and Baker (and Stevens, Jr. again) the same oppotunity.
"Shelley Winters and The Diary of Anne Frank" (7:00, SD) presents Stevens, Jr.'s 1983 interview with Winters, conducted for his doc George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey.
"The Sound and Music of The Diary of Anne Frank" (7:54, SD) looks at the film's aural impact, with Stevens, Jr. and composers and Alfred Newman's sons David Newman and Thomas Newman.
"The Diary of Anne Frank: Correspondence" (13:12, SD) features letters related to the production, read by Stevens, Jr.
Last among new features is the succinct making-of "Fox Movie Channel presents Fox Legacy with Tom Rothman" (14:08, SD).
The original DVD bonus features are also on hand, an impressive package on their own. The feature-length A&E doc "The Diary of Anne Frank: Echoes from the Past" (1:30:07, SD), narrated by Burt Reynolds, looks mostly at the real history behind Anne Frank's book, but also at the various adaptations. Interviewees include Stevens, Jr., Shelley Winters, Anne Frank's cousin Buddy Elias, Otto Frank's stepdaughter Eva Schloss, documentary filmmaker Jon Blair, WWII historian David Barnouw, Anne Frank's childhood friend Laureen Nussbaum, Perkins, Otto Frank (vintage), Anne and Margot Frank's pen pal Betty Ann Wagner, and Fritz Pfeffer's daughter-in-law Sigi Pepper.
"Diary of Anne Frank excerpt from George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey" (7:59, SD) includes an interview snippet with Perkins.
"George Stevens Press Conference" (5:01, SD) is a neat bit of promotional history, and we're also treated to the original "Millie Perkins Screen Test" (2:20, SD).
Also on hand: six "Fox Movietonews Clips" (6:44, SD) related to the film, the "Theatrical Trailer" (3:11, SD), the "International Trailer" (4:32, SD), an Interactive Pressbook Gallery, and a Behind-the-Scenes Gallery.
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