The official synopsis for “A Small Light:” “Based on an inspiring true story, Miep Gies was young, carefree and opinionated — at a time when opinions got you killed ― when Otto Frank asked her to help hide his family from the Nazis during WWII. Told with a modern sensibility, A SMALL LIGHT shakes the cobwebs off history and makes Miep’s story feel relevant, forcing audiences to ask themselves what they would have done in Miep’s shoes; and in modern times, asking if they would have the courage to stand up to hatred. Some stood by, Miep stood up.” The powerful, eight-part limited series is produced by ABC Signature and Keshet Studios and will begin airing on May 1st. (See last paragraph for channels and times).
The series stars Bel Powley as Miep and Liev Schreiber as Otto Frank. Anne Frank is portrayed by 17-year-old British actress Billie Boulet (“The Worst Witch,” “The Power”) and her older sister, Margot, is portrayed by Ashley Brooke (“The White House Plumbers,” “Troop Zero”). Ashley shared during the Q&A that her own grandmother was a Holocaust concentration camp survivor.
The opening episodes of the series build the character of Miep. “A Small Light” is the story of Miep Gies ; Born. Hermine Santruschitz. 15 February 1909. Vienna, Austria-Hungary (Now Austria) ; Died, 11 January 2010 (2010-01-11) (aged 100). Hoorn, Netherlands. Miep was sent from her native Vienna, Austria to be raised by the Gies family because her health was fragile. Her nuclear family felt it was in her best interests to relocate her to Amsterdam, so that she could receive medical care and a generally better quality of life. She remained in Amsterdam for the rest of her life.
Miep, as portrayd by Bel Powley (“The Morning Show,” “The King of Staten Island,” “White Boy Rick“) seems carefree and lighthearted and not that interested in either working or settling down. Her adopted family actually has conversations about the possibility of her marrying her adopted brother, to alleviate the hardship for the family unit continuing to support Miep in war-time.
This detail about Miep’s potential marriage to someone she regarded as her brother was true. It was researched by show creators Tony Phelan and Joan Rater, who are a married couple. The brother being gay, however, was poetic license, based on the gay community’s support for the Resistance in Amsterdam in WWII. The co-creators also shared that their diligent research for the series was all donated to the Anne Frank House/Museum after filming was completed.
Joan arrived late for the Q&A due to flight delays at SXSW. She explained that she and her husband were touring the Anne Frank home in Amsterdam when they became intrigued by the untold story of Miep Gies, the young woman who stepped up to help hide Otto Frank and his family when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. The sets were exact recreations of the space in which the Franks hid.
It is clear that Miep is somewhat naïve about how bad things will become for Jewish residents of the Netherlands. (“Hitler won’t come here. We’re neutral.”) She is among those Dutch citizens who cannot believe that the Germans will invade their peaceful city and country. Others, who are more practical, are convinced that he will, in fact, invade.
May 10-15, 1940: The Queen fled to London and the Netherlands fell to the Nazis in five days.
Miep is proven wrong in her optimistic belief that “all will be well.” She then becomes very active in helping Jews go into hiding, not only helping the Franks build a secret hideaway above Otto’s Opetka office, with a staircase hidden behind a fake bookcase, but also helped to hide other Jewish families in the city.
Miep also has a romance with a bookish young man named Jan, played by Joe Cole (“Peaky Blinders”). Jan tells Miep that he is actually already married to someone else, but just doesn’t have enough money to finalize the divorce. That was an odd beginning to their courtship. Miep is shown ditching Jan at a club, as she found his bookish ways (he is reading Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”) boring, initially. Ultimately, the couple discover they have many shared interests and—despite his horrible period haircut—they become a couple. Jan is played by Joe Cole (“Against the Ice,” “The Ipcress File”).
As the couple become more and more involved in the Dutch Resistance—Miep in their neighborhood and Jan banding together with like-minded co-workers (he is a social worker)—the couple work together to solve problems such as how to secure extra ration books in order to feed the nine people hiding in the upper area above Otto Frank’s Opetka jam business.
It falls to the efforts and good will and chutzpah of Good Samaritans such as Miep and Jan to hide and provide for the persecuted Jews. Miep hid the Franks for over 2 years. The Franks went into hiding on July 5, 1942.
During that time, Miep was also helping hide other families. At one point, the Franks’ Jewish dentist, Dr. Pfeffer (Noah Taylor) must go into hiding with the Franks and their guests, the Van Pels family. A line in the script, when husband Jan suggests that Miep should have shared her decision with him before saying yes to Otto Frank (Liev Schreiber with his hair shaved back to mid-pate), Miep responds, “I didn’t think I needed to consult you before agreeing to save someone’s life.”
From the stage during the Q&A Joan Rater shared with the audience that she and her husband (co-creator Tony Phelan, who directed 3 episodes and scripted others) have a son about the age that Miep was when she was asked to help hide the Franks. It was being in Amsterdam and thinking about the way in which their own son might react that got them thinking about the largely untold story of Miep Gies.
Most of us are familiar with “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Only Otto survived being imprisoned. Edith (the mother) died at Auschwitz. Anne and Margot were transferred to Birkenau and died there of typhus.
As for Miep Gies, the focus of this film, she lived to be almost 101. When the Franks were arrested in August of 1944, possibly turned in by neighbors or by the cleaning person at Otto’s business, Miep Gies and Bep Voskuijl were not arrested. Miep managed to excuse herself by saying she knew nothing of those in hiding. Miep and two others would rescue Anne’s diary before the Nazis cleared out the hiding place. They would eventually return the papers to Otto Frank. Anne’s father would see that Anne’s diary was published (initially as “Diary of a Young Girl”).
“A Small Light,” an 8 part series, premieres Monday, May 1, at 9/8c on National Geographic with two back-to-back episodes. New episodes will debut every Monday at 9/8c and 10/9c on National Geographic and will stream the next day on Disney +. The timeliness of the script, plus the excellent performances and on-site location shoot, have this series marked for nominations during awards season.
Listen to part of my interview with the actresses Ashley Brooke, who played Margot Frank, and 17-year-old Billie Burke, who plays Anne Frank in the 8-part National Geographic series now airing. (Ashley is also appearing in “The White House Plumbers” as Alexandra Liddy, daughter of Justin Theroux’s character of E. Gordon Liddy.) Connie met with the two stars of “A Small Light” for a one-on-one interview just prior to the film’s premiere at SXSW.