New film seeks broader portrait of Anne Frank

PRAGUE, March 14 (JTA) – Anne Frank sits on a stool in a dimly lit and dusty room, whimpering as she clutches her arms to her chest, shivering from fear and cold. Her large brown eyes have an unforgettable, haunted look.

As the Auschwitz inmate starts to hack off Anne’s beloved long brown hair, a loud call echoes through the barren room, breaking the silence: “Cut!”

The inmate, however, continues to hack off the young girl’s locks with his large scissors.

Recognizing the double entendre, director Robert Dornhelm rushes over, changing his instructions to “Stop! Stop!”

Crew and observers watching the filming of the heart-wrenching scene cannot help but smile.

The elderly extra, a former hairdresser, is struggling to be as brutal with 13-year-old actress Hannah Taylor Gordon’s hair as the scene requires.

Getting it right the first time the cameras roll is crucial, as stars and crew agree that there will be no wigs – and therefore no repeat takes – for this scene in “Anne Frank,” a four-hour ABC miniseries.

Welcome to Prague and the filming of a $12 million production, starring Oscar- and Emmy-winning actor Ben Kingsley as Anne’s father, Otto Frank, and Golden Globe-winner Brenda Blethyn as family friend Auguste Van Pels.

Writer Kirk Ellis, who based his script on German writer Melissa Mueller’s biography of Anne, claims that the new production is the first to give a truer, broader picture of Anne’s life before, during and after her two-year confinement in a secret annex of an Amsterdam home, where she wrote her famous diary.

The show covers Anne’s life from age 9 to her death at 15 from typhus at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp weeks before its liberation.

“This shows Anne as a typical girl affected by remarkable events. Once you understand the context of her life, it puts the achievement of her diary into a far greater context,” Ellis says.

Filming of the miniseries, slated to be aired in May, involved recreating the three concentration camps where Anne spent the last few months of her young life: Westerbork, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.

It also involved the painstaking recreation of the secret annex where the Franks and four family friends hid from the Nazis, and building a facade along Prague’s waterfront to resemble 1940s Amsterdam.

British actress Hannah Taylor Gordon won the role of Anne over 1,200 other girls worldwide, and is taking the star turn in stride.

“I am just enjoying going on the set and being as much like Anne as I can imagine,” she says during a break in filming.

While Gordon’s remarkable resemblance to Anne was the first thing that grabbed producer David Kappes and executive producer Hanns Proppe during the casting process, her personality and acting skills quickly impressed the cast and crew.

Kingsley is among those praising her talents.

“She is the best leading lady I have ever had. She is intelligence on legs,” he says, relaxing in his trailer.

“Ninety percent of what I do is reacting to her. I just hold her hand and play her dad and allow my character to love her character.”

For Gordon, who is not Jewish, playing the role is about being herself – and she repeatedly refers to the character in the present tense.

“I think I’m really like her. That’s why I love playing this part. Anne is really bubbly and bright – I’m quite like that,” Gordon says. “I love dreaming and making up little stories. But she could also be really deep and intense – I can just imagine her in a corner scribbling really fast.

“I think the people in the annex survived the confinement because of her; she kept them going,” she says.

Although Gordon knew about Anne, it was not until she won the role that she read her diary closely.

“I had browsed through the diary before, but two months ago I was given a copy, and as I read it properly I started to know Anne better and understand her thoughts,” she says.

“During her confinement in the annex, her style of writing becomes really impressive,” Gordon says. “I hadn’t previously understood that at the beginning of the diary she was just a child.”

Gordon has made a big impression on her fellow cast and crew members, but Anne obviously has left a lasting impression on Gordon as well.

Gordon has been keeping a diary about playing Anne, and plans to turn it into a script when she has time.

Even the prospect of having her hair cut off – something the producers insisted on from the start – does not faze her.

“I’m quite excited about it, but also nervous,” Gordon admits moments before the scene is shot.

Producers Kappes and Proppe considered filming in Amsterdam but opted for Prague, largely because of cost.

“There was rarely an original, intact block in Amsterdam that still looked the way it did in 1944, without a modern addition,” Kappes says.

Instead, an Amsterdam facade was built along Prague’s Vltava River, and other parts of Prague were used as well.

Another strike against an Amsterdam location was the passion the topic arouses there.

“Amsterdam’s residents are very polarized about Anne,” Kappes says.

For Kingsley, this is his third Holocaust role, after “The Murderers Among Us” – in which he played Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal – and the Steven Spielberg epic “Schindler’s List.”

“I vowed after both films that I would never go back to the Holocaust. But, quite simply, there was a little girl who said, ‘I want to be famous after I’m dead,’ and even though it’s very difficult, demanding and complex, that’s the deal,” Kingsley says.

Kappes is quick to defend the filming of yet another adaptation of Anne’s story.

“Many people say that Anne Frank has been done nine times, so why do it again? But this production tells the parts we don’t know – Anne’s childhood and the horror of being sent to the camps,” he says.

“It is a story that has to be told continuously,” he says. “In the U.S., children are not aware of the horror and inhumanity, and they have to be so that this does not happen again.”

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