Today’s shot is a remarkably sweet and surprising moment from George Steven‘s film of the famous Pulitzer prize-winning play The Diary of Anne Frank. Stevens was transformed by the war. A successful Hollywood director, he joined the US Army Signal Corps and lead a film unit that documented, among other events, the D-Day invasion and the horrors of the Dachau concentration camp (this footage was used in the trials at Nuremberg). It’s no wonder that the creator of such delightful and silly comedies as Penny Serenade and The More the Merrier, would turn his back on the genre and commit the rest of his career to dramatic work. Even whoever chose his IMDB photo seems to be well aware of post-war Stevens:
With that in mind, it’s incredibly easy to see why he would have been attracted to this film. To me, Stevens’ films are so satisfying because of their authentic humanity, and indeed, when I think of Stevens’ films, I’m usually thinking of his post-war work, such as Anne Frank and I Remember Mama, eg. This shot today really knocked me back when I saw it – I think I stood up in front of the TV I was so with him, yet so surprised and impressed. To capture the magic of this moment — this respite from the sense of horror and dread that pervades the film without ever being heavy-handed — is really bold and deft.
So here’s the scene, which, if you ever saw the film or the play, probably sticks in your mind. Now, adjust for being a bit dated, but the over all effect is no less powerful, I think. Anne’s date with Peter. An awkward first date; not just first with each other, but first ever. Stuck hiding in the tiny attic, they find a private space to have their date. (The whole film is remarkable for its use of black-and-white widescreen and the cramped set.) The awkward energy finally culminates with the most tasteful, inspired, and touchingly staged kiss I’ve ever seen. But wait, there’s more! After kiss, the shot goes a little bit further and that’s when I jumped from my chair… the moment’s at 8:34, but you’ll see it’s part of the master shot that carries the whole scene (with a handful of coverage intercut):
How about that incredible use of silhouette and syncopated hesitations of the kiss?! Oh, man, when she opened that door after the kiss and the light poured on her changed face – I can’t take it, it’s just too amazing. Those are the moments, for me, that you hope for as an audience, and pray for as a director. You work hard to chance into those inspirations that transcend.
I love this moment, too, because, while bitter-sweet, it’s a moment of hope in a tale of human tragedy. A hopeful beat that ultimately echoes Anne Frank’s sentiment, “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” I think that must have been a message that Stevens was desperately clinging to after all he’d seen.