The video lasts all of twenty seconds. We see the doorway of a nondescript apartment building, several stories high, and neighbors above peering curiously down. A newlywed couple proceed down the steps: The groom wears a top hat and formal suit, the bride carries a lavish bouquet. The camera pans up, and there she is, leaning out of a second-floor balcony, instantly recognizable.
It’s Anne Frank: Her mop of thick dark hair, her angular features. She looks down at the bride and groom—she turns her head to call to someone inside—she looks out again. The footage is too grainy to be sure, but it looks like she’s smiling.
This video was posted on YouTube by the Anne Frank House, which identifies it as the only known footage of the future diarist, taken in 1941, the year before she and her family went into hiding. It has been viewed more than three million times. When I posted a link to it a few weeks ago on Twitter, it was retweeted more than fifty times by people all around the world, from Dublin to Dubai. Comments poured in, in half a dozen languages. One of my correspondents wrote that watching the video reminded him of Orpheus looking back at Eurydice: We see Anne for a moment as if alive, only to lose her again.
It’s the glimpse of the icon in unexpected surroundings that seems uncannily to bring her back to life, slipping her out of the standard tropes that history and collective imagination have used to bind her image. (By contrast, the wax figure of Frank recently unveiled, with minor controversy, in the Berlin branch of Madame Tussaud’s depicts her sitting at her desk, the famed diary before her.) The video has something of the frisson of a candid shot of a celebrity doing something quotidian—getting coffee, walking her dog. It is affecting precisely because of Anne Frank’s iconicity. Yet to readers of the Diary—and which of us is not among them?—the video is all the more affecting because it shows Anne doing something that she could never do in hiding, something that she longed to do: the simple act of looking out the window.
As I watched the flood of anniversary coverage this week commemorating the sinking of the Titanic, my thoughts kept returning to the Anne Frank video. There are some odd similarities in the ways that we recall both the Titanic disaster and the Holocaust, from the blockbuster movies of dubious taste to the hungry appetite for survivor memoirs. (A collection of personal testimonies called Titanic: First Accounts, just published by Penguin, makes for riveting reading.) In both cases, we long for artifacts: some tangible effects of the people who perished, no matter how ephemeral. An auction house is currently presenting for sale a collection of more than 5,000 items salvaged from the ship’s wreckage, including clothing, jewelry, and china; it is valued at around $189 million. Were Anne’s writing desk to be auctioned, it would no doubt fetch a similarly astronomical price.
To look at the video of Anne Frank, or a slideshow of the Titanic’s ephemera—an alligator handbag, a water-crumpled top hat and dress shoes—is to know for certain that the girl leaning off the balcony, or the people to whom these objects belonged, were once like us. In their deaths they became myth, but in life they were unexceptional: The video shows Anne Frank, as one of my Twitter correspondents put it, “before she was Anne Frank.” We know that Anne Frank was real; we don’t need a video for that. But we long for artifacts because they seem to offer a route to authenticity, a direct access to the moment of disaster that we obsessively replay. As such, they become repositories of meaning—empty of their own significance, but imbued with it by virtue of their context. And for historical catastrophes such as the Titanic or the Holocaust, the desire for an object to convey meaning is particularly acute, since otherwise the event feels morally empty, and thus dangerous.
“Unlike other disasters, the Titanic seems to be about something,” Daniel Mendelsohn muses in last week’s New Yorker. “But what?” Since it is not about something in particular, it can be about anything. It is a Tower-of-Babel parable about man’s hubris and the limits of technology; it is “a morality tale about class privilege”; it is a screen onto which we project our own anxieties about class, race, gender, and so on. Mendelsohn acknowledges these possibilities before positing his own theory of the Titanic as mythic archetype, maiden sacrifice and flawed hero rolled into one—complete with the “ancient theatrical pleasure, not totally free of Schadenfreude, in watching something beautiful fall apart.” His take is affecting, but it seems to be based mainly on a close reading of the James Cameron film, which does not quite stand up to the pressure of his intellect.
Yet Mendelsohn is right to suggest that what makes the Titanic disaster feel so meaningful is its aura of universality. Unlike an earthquake, which strikes at a certain time in a specific place, the shipwreck is maddeningly variable: Anyone could have booked passage on that maiden voyage, and the accounts are filled with tales of those who changed their minds at the last moment and did not board the ship. “Titanic—the floating city—is a metaphor for the whole of civilization, and her untimely death at the hand of God or nature is a metaphor for the human condition,” Tim Malton writes in his introduction to Titanic: First Accounts. Auschwitz, too, despite its shattering exigencies, has often been seen as both a microcosm of the world at large and a metaphor for our existence within it.
Historian Walter Lord has written that the Titanic disaster offers a psychological model for the general way in which we experience tragedy: “the progression … from initial disbelief to growing uneasiness to final, total awareness.” But more than that, I think, such disasters offer a model for the way we experience life itself. The Frank family in hiding, like the passengers aboard the boat that one of them called “a small world,” take the journey we all will take, from birth through life to death, but in abbreviated form, like a tape on fast-forward. In both cases—as in all such cases—we stand outside the disaster, looking in.
An extreme catastrophe affords us a kind of luxury: a comfortable perch from which to reflect upon our own mortality. We don’t know what will finally happen to us, but whatever it is, it won’t be that. We will not go down with the Titanic; we will not be murdered by the Nazis. We speak of the contemplation of these stories—as historical events or as something close to myth—as “reliving” them. But in fact it is death to which they bring us safely closer.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter: @ruth_franklin.