I can’t stop watching the film clip of Anne Frank. Ever since the Anne Frank House museum posted it on their new Anne Frank YouTube channel a few weeks ago, I have watched it again and again. I must have watched it a hundred times. It is 20 seconds of shaky, black-and-white silence, in which Anne Frank appears at a window on a summer day in 1941. It is the only known film of Anne Frank.
Only, it’s not a film about Anne Frank. At least not intentionally. The stars of the film are a newlywed couple, walking out of the house next door. The bride carries a huge bouquet of flowers and wears a modest skirt suit. She holds the arm of a lanky groom, who dons a top hat and tails. They smile. The street gathers to watch them, the windows in the surrounding buildings fill with onlookers.
The film’s guest star is Merwedeplein, the street in Amsterdam where the Frank family lived before they went into hiding at 263 Prinsengracht — now known as the Secret Annex — the following summer of 1942. It’s a clear day on Merwedeplein and everything seems as it should: little girls hold their mothers’ hands, teenage boys ride bicycles, cars whiz past a nearby park. It’s a time when the Jews of Holland were only being deported in handfuls, and there’s no sign at all of a country living under occupation.
Ten seconds into the film, the camera pans up from the newlyweds and the street to a girl sticking her head out a second floor window. Watching the 20-second clip, there’s no reason to notice this girl. Except that the girl is Anne Frank. And so, knowing that you will see her, and then seeing her, you cannot concentrate on anything else in the film. Her animated head bobs around, excited, watching the couple, then the street, then the couple again, then the women in the window next door, then back over her shoulder to someone behind her, then the couple, the street again, women again — all in five seconds. She would love to follow the married couple, run after them down the street. Mundane tasks — perhaps homework or an unfinished lunch — keep her inside, tasks from the life of a 12-year-old girl.
The more you watch the clip, the more you see only Anne Frank, even in the 15 seconds when she’s absent. Everything happening in the center of the frame is haunted by one peripheral moment of … wait, there’s Anne Frank, is it really — there she…! Nope, she’s gone. The clip stops, and you watch it again. Twenty seconds of impressionistic filler starring a window and a ghost in the shape of a girl.
It’s funny how ghosts always appear at windows. They’re always trying to get in, peering out, or — seen from outside wandering back and forth — floating in and out of the window’s frame. Think Catherine in Wuthering Heights, Peter Quint in Turn of the Screw, the charming maiden in The Deserted House, Poe’s The Haunted Palace…the list is long. Nothing represents longing and loss like a window, especially a haunted one. It’s no wonder that the word “haunt” has its roots in the word “home.” Ghosts are always trying to find their way home, or find themselves lost in a home where they are unwanted. Even when they are in a home, they never feel “at home.” Ghosts are permanently homeless. They live in the space between inside and outside, between home and not home, like a window. Lurking about a window, the ghost hopes to see and be seen, aching to be free. But ghosts are by definition in limbo, and therefore never free. Anne Frank probably spent many hours at the window of Merwedeplein 37, caught in the limbo between being a 12-year-old girl who must stay at home, and a dreamer, a natural flâneur forced to wander the streets of Amsterdam in her imagination.
During two years of her short life, Anne Frank would spend much of her time haunting the attic window of the Secret Annex. In Diary of a Young Girl, windows show up again and again as symbols of love, fear, and independence, sometimes all at once.
One night during the Pentecost holiday, for instance, when it was so hot, I struggled to keep my eyes open until 11:30 so I could get a good look at the moon, all on my own for once. Alas, my sacrifice was in vain, since there was too much glare and I couldn’t risk opening a window. Another time, several months ago, I happened to be upstairs one night when the window was open. I didn’t go back down until it had to be closed again. The dark, rainy evening, the wind, the racing clouds, had me spellbound; it was the first time in a year and a half that I’d seen the night face-to-face. After that evening my longing to see it again was even greater than my fear of burglars, a dark rat-infested house, or robberies. I went downstairs all by myself and looked out the windows in the kitchen and private office.
The window also comes to mean a loss of innocence for Anne Frank. Like Peter Pan and the Lady of Shalott, what awaits Anne Frank outside the window is the horrible freedom of experience and understanding. “I saw two Jews through the curtains yesterday, it was a horrible feeling, just as if I had betrayed them and was now watching them in their misery.” By the window, Anne Frank sees the arrests, listens to the bombings. She bears witness to the crimes on the street she cannot access, and, by watching, is implicated in them. Yet, from the street perspective, as Anne sits unseen, watching from behind the window, imprisoned, she is the flipside of that same crime. The window is both protection and prison.
There’s one more Anne Frank video clip with a haunted window. It shows 44 seconds of the famous chestnut tree outside the Secret Annex window. It’s captured from all angles, starting from the vantage Anne Frank herself would only see once: from the outside with the Annex window in the background. In the video, the tree looks healthy and dappled with sun. A light breeze makes it dance a bit and you can hear distant sounds of the Amsterdam street: birdsong, the tolling of church bells, the rushing of the Prinsengracht canal, the breeze again. Of course the tree would be silent for Anne Frank, as the families in the attic were rarely allowed to open the window. In an old black-and-white photograph on the Anne Frank House Web site, the chestnut tree is a ghost in the background, bare limbs hunched in the distance. The caption of this photo reads: “It is dark and damp and there are rats.”
For all the liveliness of her diary — the gumption and personality apparent in her writing, and apparent again in the five seconds of film in which Anne Frank exists as a moving image — I can’t ever picture Anne Frank wandering the streets, taking a stroll, playing, free. I’ll always picture her half indoors and half out, neither here nor there, with only her imagination to connect her to everyday experience.
This morning, when I was sitting in front of the window and taking a long, deep look outside at God and nature, I was happy, just plain happy….Whenever you’re feeling lonely or sad, try going to the loft on a beautiful day and looking outside. Not at the houses and the rooftops, but at the sky. As long as you can look fearlessly at the sky, you’ll know that you’re pure within and will find happiness once more.
That’s Anne Frank in a nutshell. A girl at a window, looking fearlessly at the sky. • 20 October 2009