Judge Joel Pearce never knew the beaches of Holland looked so much like the soundstages of Hollywood.
There's more to her story than you ever imagined.
Rolled out as part of the new Disney educational series, Anne Frank couples the recent miniseries with an educational guide as well as a license for educational use. The question then becomes: is this a DVD set that educators would use in a classroom?
Facts of the Case
I suspect I can skip an overview of Anne Frank's (Hannah Taylor-Gordon, Jacob the Liar) tale, whose diary written during the Holocaust has become a touchstone for Holocaust education and recognition. Hers is now a voice of a largely silent generation, helping to humanize and individualize those who suffered in such a horrifying tragedy. This three part series tracks Anne's life from her family's initial escape from Germany to Holland, covers the Franks' hiding, then their experiences in the concentration camps.
This is a tricky review to write, because I have to approach it as a film and as an educational resource. While I wasn't impressed by the film itself, it would make a useful resource in the right classroom situation.
As viewers, we have a plethora of options when it comes to depictions of the Holocaust. A number of these, such as Life is Beautiful, Shoah, Schindler's List and Night and Fog stand as remarkable cinematic achievements. Most of them are daring productions in one way or another, the result of filmmakers who feel a heavy responsibility to the victims of the Holocaust, and fashion their films without compromise to make a strong statement.
Anne Frank, on the other hand, is as safe as any production about the Holocaust could be. It covers the life of Anne Frank exactly as you would expect, covers the expected moments and situations with care and respect, and delivers a version of the story that can be watched by young people without it being too sanitized. This makes Anne Frank a fine choice for many teachers to bring into the classroom, though I would argue it's not the best way to introduce students to the Holocaust. It's a well-intentioned production, and contains a strong performance from Ben Kingsley (Schindler's List) as Anne's father, but I was disappointed overall by the miniseries itself.
First off, the production—especially in the first half—is far too clean. It was obviously shot on a soundstage, to the point that my wife and I actually laughed during the beach scene (which only used two angles to try to hide the fact that the cast was indoors). Instead of feeling like we're getting into a peek at War-era Holland, we feel like we're watching a filmed stage play. The production team also made a bizarre choice to use stock footage in some sequences, shifting parts of scenes into black and white and even dumping Anne Frank into a couple frames a la Forrest Gump. I think it's an attempt to lend historical value to the production, but it comes off looking cheap, lazy, and distracting.
For another thing, it is three hours long. That's a big chunk of classroom time, especially on a production that really takes its time. The first hour, covering the Frank's life in Holland, is almost condescending in its attempts to set the stage for the rest of the story. The middle section covers the time in the attic. While I'm sure that hiding with two families in such close quarters must have been truly excruciating, an hour of it is also excruciating for us. By the end of this segment, I found myself disliking most of the characters, including Anne herself. The third segment is much more valuable, but I suspect that a lot of students will have checked out by this point. If they had already read the book, much of the film would be redundant and unnecessary.
Of course, many of these complaints need to be tempered. I have been exposed to a number of portrayals of the Holocaust, an experience that many students won't have had. For younger students with no background in the history, Anne Frank might make a decent initial introduction to Anne Frank's story as well as a way to show what happened to a girl of approximately the same age during World War II. Unquestionably, though, it should be seen as part of a larger unit that covers the concepts and history in more detail.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
So, would I use Anne Frank in my classroom? Maybe. I would definitely not use it in a history class, as there are much more accurate, impactful choices out there. I might use it in a language arts class, but not in the way that Disney intends. If I was studying The Diary of Anne Frank in class, I would consider using segments of this film to highlight some of the ideas in the book. It would help students visualize the contents of the book they are reading, and would help break up the time into manageable segments.
As well, I imagine a number of teachers would appreciate the educational content on the DVD. It comes with a very nice 12 page PDF file that contains a number of good resources and links for Holocaust education. As well, there are specified clips on the DVD with activities and writer's prompts attached, which could be used with my idea for classroom integration above. While there is little here that teachers don't often assemble for themselves, the educational content still has some value. There are a pair of featurettes, as well, though one of them—presented by Stan Jones encouraging students to help the family of an artist bring artwork from the Auschwitz Museum—seems out of place and opportunistic. More importantly for American teachers, the license of the DVD means that you can use this in a classroom without getting special permission, paying a separate licensing fee, or showing it illegally.
In technical terms, the disc looks and sounds fine, though it is full frame, shot on tape, and only presented in stereo. I suspect most of our classrooms are equipped with the kind of equipment where technical quality will make little difference.
I can't recommend Anne Frank to anyone interested in exploring Anne Frank's life or the Holocaust, as there have been countless better choices for that purpose. This classroom edition of the miniseries does offer an interesting choice for classroom teachers, especially those without much knowledge on the subject who can make use of the educational guide included.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Disney Educational Productions
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