The year is 1944 and 16 year-old Hannah Goslar (Josephine Arendsen) and her younger sister, Gabi, are among the many Jews being held at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Death is all around. At night, when Hannah is sent to empty out the buckets of waste that have been filled up in her barracks, she sees another prisoner being casually shot by the guards. Whenever things get to be too much for her, Hannah closes her eyes and asks herself, “What would Anne do?”
As terrible as things are where Hannah is being held, it’s rumored that things are even worse behind the wall that runs through the center of the camp. The less “privileged” prisoners are kept there. The wall is thin enough that Hannah can talk to the people on the other side, even if she can’t see them. Hannah asks them if her best friend, Anne, is among them. “She has beautiful hair,” Hannah says. The voice on the other side of the wall explains that no one in the other half of the camp has hair. Everyone on the other side of the wall is being starved and worked to death.
Occasionally, Hannah remembers what life was like before she and her family were arrested by the Nazis. Two years earlier, she was a student in Amsterdam and her best friend was Anne Frank (Aiko Beemsterboer). Hannah was shy but Anne definitely wasn’t. Hannah was often naïve and fearful but Anne was always intellectually curious and up to try almost anything. Occasionally, they fought as friends sometimes do. But Hannah always considered Anne to be her best friend.
The Amsterdam scenes do a good job of contrasting Hannah and Anne acting like ordinary teenagers with the evil that’s always lurking in the background. Haughty soldiers in German military uniforms stroll the streets of Amsterdam, moving with the arrogance of men who know that no one can defy them. Because Hannah and Anne wear gold stars on their clothing, they have to sneak into the movies and, when they do, they find themselves watching a propaganda newsreel about how much better life is in the Netherlands now that the Germans are in charge. Hannah often sees her father having hushed conversations with other nervous-looking adults.
Of course, those of us watching at home know what is going to happen. We know who Anne Frank was. Or, I should say, I hope we know who Anne Frank was. I tend to assume that everyone knows about the horror of the Holocaust and that everyone knows about the anti-Semitism that fueled the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. Unfortunately, over the past year or so, my faith has been shaken. Anti-Semitism has never gone away but, in recent years, it seems as if it’s become socially acceptable within certain parts of mainstream society and that really should scare the Hell out of anyone who has any knowledge of history. I have seen reportedly intelligent people either playing down the horrors of the Holocaust or trying to act as if the Holocaust was not about the Third Reich’s obsession with wiping out a race of people. Whoopi Goldberg may have been the most famous person to have recently gotten the facts of the Holocaust wrong but she’s hardly the only one.
To me, that’s why a film like My Best Friend Anne Frank is important because it reminds us of not only what happened at camps like Bergen-Belsen but also what happened beforehand. The camps and the ideology that fueled them didn’t just spring up out of nowhere. Instead, they were built while the rest of the world tried to deny what was happening right before their eyes. The concentration camp scenes in this film are harrowing but even more disturbing are the Amsterdam scenes where people casually walk by signs that declare that no Jews allowed and almost everyone merely averts their eyes. When Anne and Hannah walk through Amsterdam, they are insulted not just by the Nazis but also by the Dutch citizens who don’t wear gold stars, many of who seem to take an attitude of, “At least it’s not me being othered.”
My Best Friend Anne Frank is currently on Netflix. Josephine Arendsen and Aiko Beemsterboer both give good and heart-breaking performances as Hannah and Anne. The film is not just a story of survival under the worst of circumstances but it’s also a tribute to the power of friendship. Though Anne did not survive the camps, Hannah was liberated after 14 months at Bergen-Belsen and now lives in Jerusalem. She is now 93 years old.