REVIEW : Behind every hollow face lies a whole world

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The Independent Culture
Jon Blair's film about Anne Frank (BBC2, Sat), dutiful in the very best way, opened with a fine image, an exemplary resolution of the problem all film-makers face when dealing with the Holocaust. The screen must be filled, but with what? In Shoah, Claude Lanzmann's heroic act of commemoration, you saw no contemporary footage, only the aged faces of survivors and perpetrators and the landscape now, tellingly indifferent. It was an act of self-denial, an attempt to restore the experience of those who had experienced it, and it betrayed a double suspicion, of archive film (with its awful ease of shock) and of cinematic metaphor.

Blair was less puritanical: when the screen filled with flames you thought he'd succumbed to the clich, that tired shorthand for genocide. Then you saw that these weren't cinematic flames but real ones, filmed in the firebox of a locomotive. For a moment the literal explanation rescued the image from metaphor, then let it drop again with a sickening lurch. Since Auschwitz, steam trains in Europe have never been entirely innocent. The sequence was properly portentous, the means of transportation prefiguring its awful destination. What followed was less allusive in its manner - a meticulous reconstruction of Anne's life before and after the diary. It wasn't hagiography - though some of those who knew her talk as if she was a saint and as though the film itself were a sort of reliquary, holding up tiny relics to the light.

At the end you saw the only known movie footage of Anne, inadvertently included in the background of a wedding film. Barely moving, to be honest, the merest glimpse of a head turning to call someone to the window, but intensely moving all the same. It mattered that she wasn't the centre of attention here, a reminder that the importance of "Hitler's best-known victim" lies not in her tragic celebrity but in her ordinariness. She had a unique talent to ensure that she persisted in people's minds but, in one sense, there were millions like her - each with their own irreplaceable history - of visits to the beach, arguments, favourite clothes, troubled affections. For the Nazis one Jew was just like any other, a theory that the hideous experiment of the camps seemed to confirm. They took everything away from people until they were uniform in their suffering. Looking at archive films of the camps it's too easy to forget that behind every hollow face lies a whole world, almost infinite in its particulars. Jon Blair's film, by concentrating so closely on one life, reminded you.

A similar ambition seemed to be at work in Jonathan Gili's Coming Home (BBC1, Sun), an odd, occasionally frustrating film which took some risks with viewers' patience. The title seemed to promise a pattern, but the people on screen kept wandering away from the theme and Gili was patient with their personal priorities. That was the point really - every experience was different, in ways that a tabloid nostalgia simply doesn't honour. The point was best made by the Burns brothers, evacuated from the East End poverty to the enchanted world of country estates. Fifty years on and the rapture of waking to the sunlight still thickened their voices. "Oh the smell!" said one. "Warm, oily, mossy, musky... wafting."

Then the war ended. One of the men recalled their journey back, a numb reversal of that magical delivery. His memory was cinematic in its perfect montage of images, a slow zooming from a landscape to a single ugly detail. First the countryside, fading slowly to soot-stained bricks and bomb-damage, then the dark silhouette of their council block and the stench of the Thames at low tide, then the concrete steps and finally the greasy string behind the letterbox. it was as if they were latchkey jailers, despairingly locking themselves back into a life they now knew was wretched.