The story of Anne Frank and her family’s efforts to hide from the Nazis during World War II has been repeatedly told on TV and film. The National Geographic limited series, “A Small Light,” offers a new perspective on the story as it looks at the efforts of Miep Gies to help the Frank family.
Gies agrees to be the connection for the family to the outside world despite the fact even having an opinion about the Nazi occupation could get a person killed. It is the story of an ordinary secretary who finds the courage to stand up to hatred.
Much of the production – that is currently available on NatGeo, Disney+ – is based on the numerous interviews the real Gies gave after the war. The main sources for British actress Bel Powley – who portrays Gies – was the book, Anne Frank Remembered, that Gies wrote.
“I read that a few times just to get a sense of her voice. I just wanted to get a sense of who she was and her soul,” Powley says. “I found her character incredibly relatable just as a young woman.
“I’m not by any means saying I’ve ever done anything nearly as heroic as that. But, before she was put in that situation, or before she made the decision to do that, she was just a normal young girl. Like, she was a party girl. She loved dancing. She talks in her book about all of those things and going out with her friends and how attractive she found her husband. And, you know, she was a frivolous, fiercely independent young woman, and I related to all of those attributes about her.”
Powley was impressed by the courage Gies showed when her boss, Otto Frank (Liev Schreiber), asked for her assistance while her family was in hiding. During the two years that Miep hid the Franks, she and her husband Jan (Joe Cole) were also hiding many other people in and around Amsterdam.
Gies was able to keep all of this secret from her friends, family and even the Franks, while dealing with the ordinary pressures of work, daily life and a new marriage. The title of the series comes from her own words: “Even an ordinary secretary or a housewife or a teenager can in their own way turn on a small light in a dark room.”
Powley came to the project with a diverse acting resume that includes “Everything I Know About Love,” “Masters of the Air,” “The Morning Show,” “The King of Staten Island” and “White Boy Rick.” She combined her acting experiences with her own faith to take on the role in “A Small Light.”
“I have personal connections to this part of history, and I’m a very strong believer that we need to keep retelling these stories as there are less and less living Holocaust survivors with us. But I also think that in the retelling of those stories, especially on screen, it’s very important to make it fresh and accessible,” Powley says. “And when I read the pilot for ‘A Small Light,’ I was blown away by how modern and current and relatable Tony and Joan’s take on this story felt.
“I think that that’s incredibly important in the current political climate. I mean, anti‑Semitism is on the rise. There are more displaced people in the world now than ever.”
It became important to Powley for herself and her family history to be part of this production. Her hope is that viewers will look at the production and ask themselves what they would do in a similar situation. The story of Gies unfolded decades ago but to Powley, it has a very relatable feel today.
Schreiber – who is Jewish American – has been offered numerous Holocaust projects over the years. He has been very hesitant to accept such roles because he feels it is his job to reinvent that idea every time. It has gotten harder the more such projects he has done.
“A Small Light” gave Schreiber a new approach.
“This is not the Anne Frank story you were taught in elementary school. They’ve found nuance in this. They’ve found elements of it, which, for me, gives you a broader sense,” Schreiber says. “What was so powerful to me about Otto as a character is that he felt shackled by the term ‘Jew.’ He wanted to be a German, and he couldn’t because he could only be, in this administration’s eyes, a Jew.
“I think that’s what we are all hoping, or I think that’s what we should all try to do with all of our work as it refers to any human character, is how you expand that impression. If you’ve seen it before, try not to do it again. Try to find something else. Try to find another way to look at it. And I think this story in general, because it’s Miep’s perspective, really is an interesting take on that.“