Dutch filmmaker Ben Sombogaart directs the new Netflix drama “My Best Friend Anne Frank”. The movie is inspired by the real-life friendship between Anne Frank and Hannah Goslar. And while it’s a mostly fictional account, Sombogaart approaches the subject with sincerity and sensitivity.
But this isn’t just another Anne Frank movie. The story is really about Goslar and her own remarkable true story. One that may not have gotten as much attention as her more famous best friend’s, but it’s remarkable nonetheless (the 93-year-old Goslar is still with us today and resides in Jerusalem).
Working from a screenplay by Marian Batavier and Paul Ruven, the story is based on “Memories of Anne Frank: Reflections of a Childhood Friend” by American author Alison Leslie Gold. The story chronicles this friendship which began in 1942 at the 6th Montessori School in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. After moving from Germany following the election of Adolf Hitler, Anne Frank (Aiko Mila Beemsterboer) and her family moved to Amsterdam. At school, she met and became close friends with Hannah Goslar (Josephine Arendsen).
The movie’s fractured structure bounces us back-and-forth between two key times in the lives of these friends. One is set in happier days where the inseparable Hannah and Anne playfully bounce around the city. They act silly, talk about boys, and dream about traveling the world. But in the background, ominous signs of what’s to come are everywhere as the Nazi presence intensifies.
These scenes are interesting because Sombogaart doesn’t sugarcoat or romanticize Anne’s personality. At times we see her as rebellious, cruel, and even a bit of a bully. This really comes out when the high-energy Anne tries to impress the most popular girl in school, often at Hannah’s expense.
Quite the opposite, Hannah is shy and kind-hearted. She spends much of her time helping her pregnant mother (Lottie Hellingman) take care of her baby sister Gabi. Meanwhile Hannah’s tense and distracted father (Roeland Fernhout) is clearly burdened with the knowledge of what he knows is on the way. Forbidden to leave a country that doesn’t want them, he knows it’s only a matter of time before his family will be rounded up like many other Jewish families from his neighborhood.
The other timeline takes place a year or so later. Rather than the bustling streets of Amsterdam or the warmth of home, these scenes are set within the heavily guarded walls of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany. There, Hannah and Gabi struggle to survive amid the cold, cruel conditions. But little does Hannah know, her friend Anne, thought to have left for Switzerland with her parents, is in another part of Bergen-Belsen. One that’s considerably harsher and far more savage.
Sombogaart’s choice to shuffle us between these two timelines makes sense, but it doesn’t feel necessary. It works for the most part, but it makes the movie feel out of rhythm, especially in the first half. That said, DP Jan Moeskops does some interesting things visually to help differentiate the two periods. Take the sharp contrast in colors – the brighter sun-soaked glow of the Amsterdam scenes versus the bleak, grim browns and grays of the camp. Alongside Moeskops’ camera are the beautiful strings and aching piano chords from Merlijn Snitker’s simple yet affecting score. Together they help drive the emotions Sombogaart is going for.
“My Best Friend Anne Frank” may have structural issues and there are some slow patches, especially in the early camp scenes. But Ben Sombogaart’s vision conveys the sadness and the tragedy that was such a significant part of Hannah Goslar’s life. And while not as well known as her friend Anne Frank, Sombogaart presents Goslar’s story as one worthy to be told. And knowing she’s still alive today makes this all the more moving. “My Best Friend Anne Frank” is now streaming on Netflix.