NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 25: Courteney Monroe speaks onstage during the National Geographic, Disney+, and Hulu Premiere of “A Small Light” at Alice Tully Hall on April 25, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for Disney+)

By Michele Justic

Waking up late after a night on the town, cracking jokes with friends, desperately trying out for a job she’s unqualified for, flirting with guys, complaining about inept leadership … We never knew Miep Gies like this. And that’s the point.

Millions of schoolchildren read The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank’s hallowed autobiography, and visit the Anne Frank House or other Holocaust museums. Most likely view Anne and Miep as museum pieces, respected historical figures put on a pedestal, without really making the connection to their everyday life.

A Small Light,” an eight-part limited series produced by ABC Signature and Keshet Studios, portrays Miep Gies who, at risk of death, hid Jewish families, including most famously the Frank family, from Nazi torture for almost three years before being discovered.

There were laughs in the audience at a special premiere viewing at Alice Tully Hall on April 25—and that’s not a bad thing.

At the Q&A, executive producers and writers Joan Rater and Tony Phelan explained, “We wanted to clear the sepia out. We wanted a show about history that feels contemporary. It allows the audience to connect to characters in a visceral way … We had learned from our work on “Grey’s Anatomy” that drama and comedy can coexist. It requires skillful actors to pivot and get the audience to connect, and writers who understand how to write that.”

NEW YORK – APRIL 25: Joan Rater and Tony Phelan attending the National Geographic, Disney+, and Hulu Premiere of “A Small Light” at Alice Tully Hall on April 25, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Anthony Behar/PictureGroup for National Geographic)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – APRIL 25: (L-R) Billie Boullet and Kate Wagner attend the National Geographic, Disney+, and Hulu Premiere of “A Small Light” at Alice Tully Hall on April 25, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for Disney+)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – APRIL 25: (L-R) Taylor Neisen and Liev Schreiber attend the National Geographic, Disney+, and Hulu Premiere of “A Small Light” at Alice Tully Hall on April 25, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for Disney+)

Bel Powley as Miep feels like your best friend. Joan Rater explains her characters as “Ordinary persons that history happens to.” She explains how she came about this decision to make a modern-feeling series on the subject. “I was at the museum in Amsterdam. I realized that in my twenties, as Miep was, I was ill-equipped to hide anyone. I saw girls doing cartwheels in the park nearby and realized Anne Frank was a girl doing cartwheels when history happened. I don’t think Miep knew what she was doing, but heroism is saying ‘yes’ day after day.”

In the first episodes screened on April 25 in a special premier in New York, Miep struggles to get and retain her first real job at Otto’s jam company Opekta. We see her vulnerability and charm and applaud her as she advances. Otto is a strict but understanding boss who eventually, hesitantly, lets Miep in on his challenges as a Jewish father facing increasing Nazi oppression. Miep becomes closer to the family as well as her shy, intelligent suitor, Jan. Miep thinks with her heart as she agrees to provide for and protect her employer’s family as well as their friends. Newlyweds Jan and Miep balance their own marital desires and challenges with the new responsibilities of taking care of the Jewish boarders. The character complexities allow the audience to connect and feel it all as if it’s happening in the present day.

Producer Susanna Fogel explains what makes the series feel so real, “We planned how to depict a despicable time in history and also capture the bubbly romance and humor of Miep. These characters didn’t know the end of the story. They talked at dinner parties if it’s bad or not that bad. They made the choice to live. We wanted to present characters who are not the perfect oil-painting version of themselves. Really explore the emotional intelligence about characters.”

The main actors Miep Gies (Bel Powley), Otto Frank (Liev Schreiber), Jan Gies (Joe Cole) make every moment feel real along with additional cast members Amira Casar, Edith Frank; Billie Boullet, Anne Frank; Ashley Brooke, Margot Frank; Andy Nyman as Hermann van Pels, Caroline Catz as Auguste van Pels, Rudi Goodman as Peter van Pels, and Noah Taylor as Dr. Fritz Pfeffer, who all hid in the annex with the Frank family; Eleanor Tomlinson as Tess, Miep’s best friend; Sally Messham as Bep Voskuijl, Ian McElhinney as Johannes Kleiman and Nicholas Burns as Victor Kugler, Miep’s coworkers; and Liza Sadovy as Mrs. Stoppelman, Laurie Kynaston as Casmir, and Sebastian Armesto as Max Stoppelman.

Susanna Fogel explains her casting choices. “Bell was the first person we asked. We were looking for someone who can handle every dimension. The drama-gravity moments and the charisma-being-in-your-20s moments. The contrast between small challenges and big challenges enhance each other.”

Liev Schreiber explains his “unexpected take to Otto. There’s a tendency to see Otto as a victim adjacent to Anne. I hope to bring his quiet intellect and strength. Here is a man who is trying to be a father and mentor. I have a tendency to play dark characters but there is something heroic and tender about Otto. What makes it feel real is we try to play as if they are living moments today without echoes of what it means later. At the Anne Frank house, I saw personal aspects, such as that Otto enjoyed being a German. He was no longer allowed to be German. People think they can say, ‘I’m not a Jew’ or ‘I’m not religious,’ but it doesn’t matter. There is Teutonic control and you have to yield to this person.”

Tony notes how even the dress designer paid attention to detail. “The clothes feel lived in. Unselfconscious. Not necessarily iconic dress.”

Liev explains the special connection with Bell: “Acting is like tennis. So many actors know what they are going to do. You need people who receive you and respond and listen. In the first five minutes of working with Bell, I decided, ‘If she’s in charge, we will be OK.’ It’s a beautiful piece of television and I hope it lasts forever.”

This is must-see programming for everyone, including middle- and high-school students. Unfortunately most people need to Google “Anne Frank.” Among the deluge of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial on social media, some hateful responses were posted on the “A Small Light” Instagram page, which makes it readily apparent that this miniseries is needed to bring this story to life. New episodes of “A Small Light” can be viewed on National Geographic TV and episodes are streamed the next day on Disney+ and Hulu.


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