Daniel Anker, documentary filmmaker who examined complex historical events, dies at 50


Daniel Anker, director of the documentary "Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust," in his Manhattan office. (Helayne Seidman/For The Washington Post)
April 30

Daniel Anker, an award-winning documentarian who used film to reexamine complex historical events, including Hollywood’s portrayal of the Holocaust and a lifesaving sled-dog run in Alaska, died April 21 in New York. He was 50.

The cause was pneumonia, a complication of his lymphoma, said his wife, Donna Santman.

Mr. Anker made more than a dozen films during a 25-year career, including “Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust” (2004), “Music From the Inside Out” (2004) and “Scottsboro, an American Tragedy” (2000), which earned an Emmy and was nominated for an Oscar.

His most recent film was “Icebound” (2012), which focuses on a famous story: the 700-mile sled-dog relay that delivered serum to victims of a deadly diphtheria outbreak in Nome, Alaska, in 1925.

While previous chroniclers concentrated on the dog Balto (voiced by Kevin Bacon in a 1995 animated movie) and his Norwegian-born musher, Leonhard Seppala, Mr. Anker drew attention to other members of the heroic team, including native Alaskan mushers who played crucial roles in the relay. Part of the film re-creates the run along the original route and includes interviews with descendants of the team members as well as survivors of the outbreak.

He also sought to explain the backdrop for the dramatic event, exploring the political and racial angles that made the plight of white children in Nome headline news while earlier epidemics affecting mainly Alaskan natives went virtually unnoticed.

“It’s a small moment in history for which you can extrapolate all these larger truths about American culture,” Mr. Anker told the Associated Press in December when the film opened the Anchorage International Film Festival.

For “Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust,” a critical analysis of Hollywood’s treatment of the Holocaust during World War II and later years, Mr. Anker examined rare newsreel footage of the death camps and more than 40 feature movies, including the 1942 Ernst Lubitsch comedy “To Be or Not to Be” and Sidney Lumet’s 1964 classic “The Pawnbroker.” He also unearthed a dramatic 1953 episode of the TV show “This Is Your Life” featuring Holocaust survivor Hanna Bloch Kohner.

“Imaginary Witness,” which critic Anita Gates in the New York Times praised as a “devastating, impressively reflective . . .documentary,” faulted American filmmakers for largely ignoring the Nazi slaughter of Jews during the war years and for playing it down later.

“Scottsboro,” which was written and co-directed by Barak Goodman, also relied heavily on interviews and archival material to produce a nuanced portrait of the notorious racial drama in which nine African American teenagers were accused of raping two white women on an Alabama train in 1931.

The teenagers were convicted by an all-white jury, and all but one were sentenced to death, but the verdict was overturned in a landmark 1932 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which concluded that the boys had received inadequate counsel.

“This was a story no one wanted to have told,” said Goodman, who met Mr. Anker when both were undergraduates at Harvard University. “Danny was the person who went down to Alabama . . . and coaxed people out of their silence and reticence. He had an openness and gentleness that really disarmed people.”

Daniel Peter Anker was born March 14, 1964, in Washington and grew up in Potomac, Md., where he attended Winston Churchill High School.

His mother, Charlotte, was a writer, and his father, Jerry, was a labor lawyer.

He graduated from Harvard in 1986 with a degree in musicology and psychology and moved to New York, where he found work as a music associate on TV documentaries. He produced the popular PBS children’s series “Marsalis on Music,” which won a Peabody Award in 1995.

His most personal film was “Music From the Inside Out,” which explored the meaning and relevance of music through the eyes of members of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Mr. Anker, who played piano and clarinet growing up, told The Washington Post in 2006 that the film was not really about musicians but “about all of us who enjoy music in any way, whether we sing in the shower or used to play as a kid.”

He was finishing a film about filmmaker Sidney Lumet when he died.

In addition to his wife and his mother, he is survived by two children and a sister.

— Los Angeles Times

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