By Sasha Rogelberg
Those one degree of separation from Anne Frank have made their way into headlines in recent weeks: Dutch Jewish notary Arnold van den Bergh, who allegedly betrayed the Frank family by reporting their whereabouts to Nazis officials, a potential foe; and Hannah Goslar — a friend — Holocaust survivor and schoolmate of Frank’s in Amsterdam, whose story was most recently depicted in the film “My Best Friend Anne Frank,” now streaming on Netflix.
“My Best Friend Anne Frank,” directed by Ben Sombogaart, oscillates between scenes of Hannah (Josephine Arendsen) navigating the beginnings of Nazi rule in Amsterdam in tandem with the trials and tribulations of teen-dom and surviving the horrors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945, where she takes on the role of parent to younger sister Gabi, while still a child herself at only 16 years old.
Hannah and Anne (Aiko Beemsterboer), young teens more concerned with wooing blond-haired, blue-eyed boys than with the ongoing Second World War, are given an unwelcome dose of reality as they are told more and more often by their parents to keep a low profile and to avoid picking up the phone or leaving the house — lest someone dangerous spots the bright yellow cloth stars sewn onto their cardigans.
Despite both being young Jewish girls growing up in the Netherlands, Hannah and Anne couldn’t be more different. Hannah is shy and blushes deeply when she’s teased by classmates who ask her how her mother became pregnant. She wants to become a nurse but is sensitive and naive to the way the world works.
Anne is keen on taking Hannah outside of her comfort zone. Growing up with older sister Margot, Anne is knowledgeable, confident and outgoing. She instigates kerfuffles with Hannah, often being the first to tease her on her childlikeness, but also the first to apologize and the first to ask Hannah for help when she’s in a tight spot.
As quickly as their friendship is established, it is stripped away from them as the war and the film escalate. When the Frank family goes into hiding, Hannah believes they have gone to Switzerland, and Hannah, baby sister Gabi and father Hans Goslar are captured by Nazis and sent to Bergen-Belsen, where they are separated.
In the days leading to the camp’s liberation, Hannah’s sole mission becomes to find extra food to send over to a sick Anne, who is in a different part of the camp with harsher living conditions.
The title of the film, though enticing to audiences, is misleading, as the film features modest screentime between Hannah and Anne. Their friendship serves as a plot device to thread together Hannah’s experiences before and during the Holocaust, both of which are punctuated by moments of friendship with Anne.
In its efforts to bill itself as a film about their relationship, “My Best Friend Anne Frank” instead tries to weave together the narratives of two complex characters, both of whose stories fall flat.
Meaningful questions about Hannah and her family are left unanswered, particularly as her family is given a way to escape the camp. Due to the family’s possession of Palestine exchange papers, a detail not explained in the film, they are permitted to be exchanged with a German prisoner of war. According to a 1997 Scholastic interview with Goslar, the Goslar family also had passports from Paraguay, and their documentation allowed them to occupy a part of the camp that was exempt from the Holocaust’s worst horrors.
Goslar is also originally from Berlin; the family moved to Amsterdam after a failed attempt to move to England. With little contextual information about Hannah, the film falls short in painting her as a full-fledged character, especially one independent of Anne, whose story is so well-documented.
For a film that woefully neglects plot points, “My Best Friend Anne Frank” pays refreshing attention to detail, breathing life into a Holocaust narrative that has been mirrored in past films such as “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and “The Devil’s Arithmetic.”
The Jewish mourning tradition of tearing clothing depicted in the film is evocative. Hannah can’t pass a threshold of a room without kissing the mezuzah, even retrograding a couple of steps to make sure she fulfills the mitzvah. In these small moments, the film reminds the audience of the Jewish people’s deep commitment to tradition, even in the face of extreme adversity.
The story of Hannah as depicted by “My Best Friend Anne Frank” is a true reminder of the humanity of those who endured the Shoah. Beyond being resilient and heroic, survivors — particularly children — are still human: impetuous, impulsive and misguided at times.
In its effort to tell the story of two girls over several years, “My Best Friend Anne Frank” spreads itself a little too thin, the important reminder of the Shoah diluted by the film’s lack of restraint.