Jewish ordeal was played down

By Nathan Abrams

AS we celebrate Chanucah, it is timely to consider how the festival has been represented on the silver screen.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable uses of the festival was in the Oscar-winning The Diary of Anne Frank, directed by George Stevens in 1959.

Like its stage predecessor, the film version greatly exaggerated the significance of Chanucah in comparison to the original book.

Anne Frank wrote: "We didn't make much fuss about Chanucah: we just gave each other a few little presents and then we had the candles . . .

"Saturday, the evening of St Nicholas Day, was much more fun."

In contrast, in the film, Chanucah was dwelt on in some length, approximately 11 minutes of screen time was devoted to it, while St Nicholas Day was ignored.

Chanucah became, in the words of Judith Doneson, the "dramatic climax in the film".

The festival was used to foster the audiences' identification with those in hiding. Chanucah was interpreted in light of the hiding families' (the Franks and Van Daans) contemporary situation and the Cold War fight against oppression and tyranny.

That is because the importance of Chanucah, a hitherto minor Jewish festival, grew markedly during the 1950s as its symbolism mirrored the Cold War context.

Commemorating the liberation of the ancient Hebrews from the domination of the occupying Hellenists, it was a holiday of freedom and national liberation when Jews fought and defeated an intolerant power for the freedom to worship, religious diversity and tolerance.

The result was to obscure the original historical context of the play to the extent that the distinctively Jewish nature of the ordeal was played down.

As the New York Post reviewer at the time noted: "There isn't a Nazi in it."

Instead, the lack of historical contextualisation allowed for the audience to read its own interpretation into the film and the very contemporary Cold War parallel outside the cinema was probably not lost on them.

And since the labels applied to Hitler and the Nazis during the Second World War had been so effectively transferred to Stalin and the Soviets during the Cold War, it is plausible that the audience inferred that the Franks and Van Daans were hiding from the Russians rather than the Germans.

The lack of specific reference points in the film undoubtedly suggested to the audience that the enemies outside the annex were the same as those raging across the world in the 1950s.

Indeed, the significance of Chanucah was universalised for an American audience. The actors did not sing in Hebrew because to do so, according to the screenwriters, "would set the characters in the play apart from the people watching them . . . The majority of our audience is not Jewish. And the thing we have striven for is to make the audience understand and identify themselves".

Hence the Chanucah prayers were conducted in English rather than Hebrew and Moaz Tsur was changed to Rock of Ages.

As Spyrous Skouras, the president of Twentieth Century Fox, declared: "This isn't a Jewish picture. This is a picture for the world."

The end result was to suggest that Chanucah was just like Christmas - just a little different - an idea very much at home in the 1950s.

© 2012 Jewish Telegraph