‘She has become almost a pop icon’
How do you get teenagers to read Anne Frank’s diary? Tim Martin meets the duo who’ve turned it into a comic
The 13-year-old Anne Frank, dark-eyed and clever-looking, whispers secrets into the ear of a shadowy figure who steps from the pages of an enormous diary. Amsterdam wallows underwater as though after a huge flood, its steeples poking out above the waves. A dreaming Anne bursts out of a psychedelic fug and into a nightmare of marching troops.
These are some of the images in a new graphic adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary by Ari Folman and David Polonsky, the duo whose film credits include the Oscarnominated Waltz with Bashir. Commissioned by the Anne Frank Fonds, the foundation set up by Anne’s father in 1963, and incorporating Frank’s original text, it’s the kind of project that could go wrong very easily – why would this, of all texts, need to be ushered into another form? But Folman and Polonsky’s adaptation brings poignant comedy and a touch of the surreal to its portrait of the eight inhabitants of the Achterhuis, the annexe in Amsterdam where the Frank and Van Pels families lived in hiding for two years before their deportation to the labour camps in 1944.
“The text itself doesn’t need anything,” says Polonsky, when I meet him and Folman in Paris. Polonsky is the illustrator whose expressive, elegant ligne claire gives this adaptation much of its sly humour. “That’s why it’s so popular, and why people love this girl. But its place in the world is changing. Anne has become almost a pop icon. The big issue is the memory of the Holocaust. Like every big story, it needs to be retold every generation. That’s also a very Jewish thing; things that happened hundreds of years ago can be kept alive by retelling them to new audiences with different sensibilities.”
Folman, writer and adapter-inchief for this project, points out that soon there will be no living survivors of the Holocaust to tell their story. “I have the deep feeling that, if the survivors are not among us any more, perceptions of the Holocaust will change a lot. It worries me that the attitude towards the past will be” – he adopts a wide-eyed teenager’s expression – “This is a terrible thing that happened, but I’m 16 years old, and – when did it happen? The 20th century? Well, yeah, OK…”
He also worries about changing reading habits. “I think Anne Frank’s diary is a masterpiece. But I can’t imagine my kids reading
360 pages of it. I read it as a teenager, I know parts of it by heart, and I can’t believe a 13-year-old girl wrote it. You want kids to go on reading that, but they’re connected to consoles now, and it’s tougher to make them read. My kids read this” – he brandishes the graphic adaptation – “easily.”
Folman has a personal connection with Anne Frank’s story. “I grew up in a family of Holocaust survivors,” he says. “My parents arrived at Auschwitz the day that the Frank family arrived, the same day. They arrived on the night trains from Poland; the Franks arrived from Westerbork. It influences everything I do. Even physically, Anne resembles my mother when she was young.”
The connection brings to mind one of the adaptation’s most striking sequences, which imagines Anne in early middle age, trimly dressed and coiffed, offering a wry half-smile to the reader as she sits at a writer’s desk surrounded by the memorabilia of a famous career. “What I’m experiencing here,” runs the diary text across the top, “is a good beginning to an interesting life.” Anne died in Bergen-Belsen shortly before the camp’s liberation. Folman’s mother survived. “She’s 95 this year,” he says, knocking on wood. “She read the entire graphic diary on her computer.”
Folman and Polonsky’s version expands on elements of the diary, particularly the parts dealing with Anne’s fervent imagination. When she envisages the labour camps, Polonsky provides a vision of stripedpyjamaed slaves in an Ancient Egyptian frieze, building a huge eagle under the supervision of a hieroglyphic-style Nazi. When she fantasises about finding love, she wanders among Grecian busts under a pergola thronged with flowers. Where did these ideas come from, I ask Polonsky, who, like Folman, persistently and charmingly refers to Anne in the present tense. “You get to know her fields of interest a bit,” he says. “She’s really into mythology and history and movie stars. You try to
BETWEEN THE LINESImages from Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation by Ari Folman and David Polonsky, the team behind the 2008 film Waltz with Bashir, below