Is Anne Frank's Role In "The Fault In Our Stars" Offensive?
Two Jewish BuzzFeed staffers debate.
The highly anticipated film adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars centers on two teenagers with cancer, Hazel (Shailene Woodley) and Gus (Ansel Egort). While on a trip to Amsterdam, they share their first kiss in the Anne Frank House when Lidewij (Lotte Verbeek), the assistant of Hazel's favorite author Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), takes them around the city. BuzzFeed's Ariane Lange felt enraged by the scene, while her colleague Emily Orley felt different. Below, they state their cases.
Emily Orley: So I have been thinking about The Fault in Our Stars nonstop since I walked out of it.
Ariane Lange: Me too, except I've been thinking about how much it enraged me.
Emily: OK, but before we get to the rage, were there any parts that you enjoyed? Or dare I ask, that made you cry?
Ariane: I mean, I'm a known sap, so yeah, I cried. I cried at the end, in particular. Actually Laura Dern as Hazel's mother had me teary a couple of times. The parents were really the part of the movie that got to me — the way they watch their children suffer.
Emily: Right, but at least we knew going into the movie that those moments were to be expected, in a way. You know it's a story about two teenagers with cancer so of course it's going to be extremely sad. But, as someone who didn't read the book first, the scenes I didn't know about were even harder to digest.
Ariane: I guess I could say I felt the same way — I also didn't read the book until after seeing the movie, and I only read the book to try to comprehend the movie's ahistorical and callous treatment of Anne Frank. I read the book looking for some kind of explanation, because it felt so out of place in the movie.
Emily: Well, they were in Amsterdam!
Ariane: Geographically, you're right; it makes sense. But they go to her house without really talking about her, or what happened to her. They don't really talk about her once they're inside the house. Lidewij says Otto was the only one to survive, and that's the end of the discussion. Anne Frank in this movie is this cipher — they don't talk about her history or how she died. She's just a metaphor for suffering, and I walked out of the theater angry, and I've been angry about it ever since.
Emily: I totally agree that it was a tad extreme of a comparison and the Holocaust should never be spoken about lightly. (I'm Jewish, I take offense to comments about it that are in poor taste.) But I didn't quite view it the same way you did. For me, Hazel and Anne are two young women that are dealt unfair cards: Fates they don't deserve; fates no one deserves. And I think while Hazel doesn't wallow in self-pity, she looks at Anne's life in that moment — the stairs she lived above, the bookshelf she hid behind — and found some sort, even the tiniest sort, of comfort in her own situation. As bad as things were for Hazel, she was in Amsterdam with the love of her life. Things could definitely have been a lot worse.
Ariane: I think saying they were "dealt unfair cards" is a bizarre way of looking at it, to be honest. That seems to be what John Green thinks as well. (Since he and the filmmakers had no comment when I reached out to them, I tried to find other things he'd said about her.) An interviewer asked why Anne Frank was in the book, and Green said, "Anne Frank was a pretty good example of a young person who ended up having the kind of heroic arc that Augustus wants — she was remembered and she left this mark that he thinks is valuable — but when he has to confront her death, he has to confront the reality that really she was robbed of the opportunity to live or die for something. She just died of illness like most people." She just died of illness like most people. It's a callous view of the past, and it really hits home in what you see in both the novel and the film: The particulars of Anne Frank's death are less important than the vague idea of her suffering, and it's a disgrace to her memory.
Emily: I feel like a bigger disgrace to her memory is that people are talking about Anne Frank in real life less and less. I remember being somewhere not too long ago and a group of students hadn't heard of Anne Frank and that just baffled me. Doesn't everyone learn her story in school? And read her diary? I'm not so sure anymore. As survivors pass away, the Holocaust becomes an increasingly distant part of history. So giving Anne a place in such a well-received book seems like a different approach to continuing to share her story.
Ariane: Right, but as I just said, they do not share her story. They don't talk in any detail about her life, and they don't talk in any detail about her death. And, I imagine, this is because the metaphor would quickly fall apart if we actually confronted Green's assertion that Anne Frank "just died of illness like most people."
She did not die "like most people." On Aug. 4, 1944, after two years in hiding in Amsterdam, Anne Frank, her parents, and her sister were arrested. She and her family were deported first to the Westerbork transit camp. On Sept. 3, they were moved to Auschwitz; they were confined for three days in a train car that had a bucket for human waste. Upon arrival, she, along with all the prisoners on the train, was forced to strip naked. Because she had just turned 15, she made the Nazis' age cutoff and was not immediately sent to the gas chambers. She was a slave in the camps until she got scabies, likely because of the camp's filthy living conditions and overcrowding; she was moved to the quarantine area, where the bodies of the dead were sometimes left for days at a time before they were dragged outside. Probably in October of 1944, she was moved to Bergen-Belsen — also severely overcrowded. Her clothes were infested with fleas and lice, and she eventually threw them away and wore a blanket instead, in the winter. She died there in 1945, emaciated and freezing, during a typhus outbreak. Her body was heaped on a pile of other bodies. When the camp was liberated by British soldiers, they found the ground blanketed with unburied corpses.
She's not a metaphor for All People Who Die Young: She's a real, historic person who was murdered, and to say, "She, like Hazel and Augustus, is a person who died young but still lived a meaningful life" robs her memory of its true meaning, which is that this slaughter, Shoah, was a senseless tragedy, the result of deliberate evil. Lidewij says "Anne Frank," and the audience is just supposed to understand. And what we're supposed to understand is not "a teenager's emaciated body lying on the freezing ground in a pile of corpses." We're supposed to understand, "Ah, yes, Anne Frank, died young, very sad." Cancer is heartbreaking, but it is not a genocide; it is not an organized mass murder, and to compare the two erases the intentional aspect of genocide.
Emily: I really do see your point and agree the Holocaust is on a level that cannot be compared. However, I viewed this scene as less of a metaphor and more of a kick in the pants, if you will. Hazel is stuck in a bubble, reading the same book, watching the same reality TV shows with her mom, avoiding her life because she is afraid of hurting anyone when she dies. And Gus is trying to overcompensate. Afraid of dying too young and not being able to leave his mark, he's working to drop grand gestures as much as possible. And the visit to Anne's house is a break in that cycle. Anne's story is simply used to demonstrate that if you don't live in the now, when will you live? Anne was the most remarkable example of a person that found a way to find value in each day, even horrible, terrible days that she couldn't escape. And I think that's why Hazel finally kissed Gus in that moment. (Though I really could have done without the applause from everyone in the attic. A tad ridiculous.)
Ariane: I don't know how recently you've read her diary, but I think to say Anne Frank made the best of a "bad situation" is not really accurate. She was just a regular teenager — like, a huge part of her diary is devoted to how mad she is at her mom. Anne Frank, the individual, is propped up as this sort of heroine, but that does a disservice to the memory of Shoah.
And the fact that Hazel and Augustus decide to kiss in the annex really underlines that they don't think of this as a monument to human suffering; they think of it as this uplifting, carpe-diem place. In the book, Hazel, the narrator, says she was "thinking that you cannot kiss anyone in the Anne Frank House, and then thinking that Anne Frank, after all, kissed someone in the Anne Frank House, and that she would probably like nothing more than for her home to have become a place where the young and irreparably broken sink into love." She knows it's inappropriate, and then she clearly aligns herself with Anne Frank, and again, ignoring the actual circumstances of Anne Frank's death, she takes it upon herself to speculate as to what Anne Frank would have wanted. Oh, Anne Frank, she loved love. So what you're saying, I think, is true: The book and the movie do take Anne Frank's house to be a place of inspiration for you to "live your best life today," and the reason they're able to do that is because they don't take into account any of the Franks' actual stories.
Emily: You say Anne is made out to be a heroine and that's a disservice. I have to disagree. Every single soul that suffered through or perished in the Holocaust is a hero. And as for the narration, that is not included in the movie. So I do agree with your point that it seems disrespectful for Hazel to acknowledge that something is inappropriate and then do it anyway. I'm not sure if they filmed that scene in the actual museum in Amsterdam, but it looked a lot like it. And if that is the case, I give the screenwriters a lot of credit for showing the true space rather than trying to recreate it.
Ariane: They did shoot in the Anne Frank House for part of the scene. As for the victims, my point is that to call them heroes, to my mind, imbues their suffering with a higher purpose that I think is counterproductive. Calling Anne Frank a hero takes something away from her: She was a regular teenager who was murdered. It wasn't dignified, and it wasn't heroic, and that is what happened. To remember it as heroic, I think, distorts it. It distorts the evil that actually occurred. And it's that kind of thinking that allows Anne Frank to be used as a prop.
Emily: What would have been really great was if Hazel left Amsterdam and read Anne Frank's diary instead of Peter Van Houten's novel again! It would have been a nice way to tell more of Anne's story.
Ariane: To me, what would have been really great would be if Green didn't use Anne Frank as an empty metaphor. Or if the book and the movie weren't completely ahistorical.