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#AnneFrank Parallel Stories review: How not to turn history into hashtags

This Netflix documentary about Anne Frank and Holocaust survivors misses the chance to make a powerful statement

Detail from the poster of Anne Frank Parallel Stories.
Detail from the poster of Anne Frank Parallel Stories.

German philosopher Theodor Adorno famously remarked that it would be barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz. #AnneFrank—Parallel Stories, a new documentary streaming on Netflix, goes a step further. It turns the victim of a horrific historical tragedy into a hashtag.

One of the scores of concentration camps in German-occupied Poland during World War II, Auschwitz saw 1.1 million Jewish inmates perish between 1940 and 1945—when the Soviet army liberated the site. Vast numbers of men, women and children were sent to the gas chambers, to be killed by poisonous fumes. Across Europe, in hundreds of such camps, millions were murdered, or died due to the inhuman conditions in which they were kept. Among the latter was a 15-year-old girl called Anne Marie Frank, who died in the typhus epidemic that broke out in the Bergen-Belsen camp in 1945.

The name of Anne Frank is immortalized by her diary, discovered posthumously, and published by her father, Otto Frank, who survived the Holocaust. Since it was published in 1947, The Diary Of A Young Girl has been translated into 70 languages and sold over 30 million copies. Although Anne Frank was born in Frankfurt in 1929, she lived most of her short life in Amsterdam, and wrote her journal, which was gifted to her on her 13th birthday, in Dutch.

From school-goers to adults, the readers of Anne Frank’s diary range across a cross-section of society. The account of her days is filled with teenage joys and frustrations, later with fear and foreboding, as she hid with her family in a secret annex of their house to evade the Nazis. In spite of her cloistered life, Anne Frank was able to summon a rare spirit of resilience and shore up her ripening intellectual resources to fight off the deepening gloom of her days. In the two years she confided in her diary—she thought of the journal as a friend and called it Kitty—Anne Frank left behind a vivid portrait of who she was and intimations of the woman she would have been.

The documentary #AnneFrank—Parallel Stories has its heart in the right place. Directed by Sabina Fedeli and Anna Migotto, and beautifully narrated by actor Helen Mirren, it intends to memorialize Anne Frank’s life and legacy, especially for people around her age living in the 21st century. And, rather daringly, it doesn’t confine itself to telling Anne Frank’s story alone. Instead, five Holocaust survivors, roughly the same age as Anne Frank would have been had she lived, recollect their memories of the camps in the movie.

Arianna Szörenyi, Sarah Lichtsztejn-Montard, Helga Weiss and the sisters Andra and Tatiana Bucci tell their stories on camera—their memories of losing parents and loved ones to the Nazis, and the indomitable courage and grit it took them to come out of the death camps alive. Their personal stories are interspersed with testimonies by their children and grandchildren, who speak about their complicated inheritance of trauma and their difficulties in processing the suffering their parents and grandparents endured. As one woman says of her mother, “A part of her has remained in the camp."

While the reality of the camps may feel distant and the brutality of what their ancestors survived seem surreal to the younger generation, fascism is far from dormant in the 21st century. With the present surge of populism around the world, dominated by real and/or quasi-dictators, the fear of the camp isn’t merely a historical footnote. It remains palpable for the millions of stateless refugees, for instance, left adrift in the world, who are forced into camps with sub-human amenities.

#AnneFrank—Parallel Stories could have mined such meanings and metaphors to create a far more powerful narrative than it does. The weaving together of the five women’s testimonies with Anne Frank’s biography is clumsy, though on their own, each of their stories is heart-rending. Mirren’s presence, at once intense and sobering, provides an anchor to the wobbly structure. There are piecemeal attempts to bring in historical information into the narrative—for instance, in the snippets from Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem in the 1960s, and comments by experts. However, the periodic interventions can't quite make up for a firmer intellectual scaffolding that the project seems to miss.

The worst decision, editorially, is to have a fictional character called “Katarina Kat"—a girl roughly the same age as Anne Frank when she died—as the thread that ties the stories together. A quintessentially 21st-century urban privileged teenager, Katarina travels across Europe with her iPhone and documents her experience of visiting concentration camps on Instagram. Her intention is noble—to grapple with Anne Frank’s tragic death at an age when life should have been full of exciting possibilities for her. On her Instagram page, Katarina Kat creates a visual diary of her own, leaving remarks and questions addressed to Anne Frank in the void of the internet. Like her contemporaries, she doesn’t miss putting the right hashtags—#annihilation, #persecution, #resistance. Could the gravity of the tragedy not be conveyed to the young without the cheesy paraphernalia of hashtags and glib monologues?

Like Adorno, the German-American political philosopher Hannah Arendt contributed another memorable phrase into the vocabulary of Holocaust history: “the banality of evil". In spite of its best intentions, #AnneFrank—Parallel Stories, at times, seems to undercut the real horror of evil with the banality of hashtags.

#AnneFrank—Parallel Stories is streaming on Netflix.

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