“A Small Light” Is a Must-See Miniseries about Anne Frank’s Protector, Miep Gies

The eight-part miniseries starring Bel Powley, Joe Cole and Liev Schreiber will be available to stream on Disney+ on May 1st.
March 16, 2023

A must-see scripted miniseries on the Anne Frank story is coming out this spring— and it is bound to be a hit. The Journal screened the series and spoke with the cast and crew.

It’s the story of Miep Gies, the secretary of Otto Frank and her husband, Jan Gies. Together, the Gies couple hid the Frank family in the upstairs annex of Otto’s company in Amsterdam.

The eight-episode miniseries from National Geographic streams on Disney+ starting on Monday, May 1st, with two episodes airing each week through May 22nd.

In the role of Miep Gies is actress Bel Powley, known for her roles in “The King of Staten Island” and “The Morning Show.” The Journal spoke with Powley about how she approached the gravity of her role. Prior to filming, Powley had never been to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. So before filming principal photography in Prague, Powley not only did a private tour of the actual annex, but she retraced the roads that her character Miep actually traversed during World War II.

“I did Miep’s bicycle route just to get a feel of it, and I did the cycle ride that she took Margot [Frank] on when she took Margot to the hiding place through the checkpoint,” Powley told the Journal.

Actor Joe Cole played Miep’s husband Jan. He spoke about the sobering experience of entering the actual annex while they were filming exteriors in Amsterdam.

“It really brought home exactly how important this show and this story was and how important it’s for us to do right by these characters and this and these people characters,” Cole told the Journal.

Upon arriving in Prague for filming, both Powley and Cole were struck by how detailed the replica annex set was.

“I was totally blown away when we finally got to Prague and saw the sets that they’d built — literally, it’s a complete replica of the Anne Frank House and annex,” Powley said. “They built it on levels, so you can literally walk right from the office of our set, you could film them walking from the office all the way back into the annex up the stairs. Marc Holmes, our artistic director, is an absolutely incredible man.”

Everyone from “A Small Light” who Journal spoke to had praise for the production designer, Marc Holmes and noting his meticulousness. The authenticity of every article of every lightbulb, window and door knob was scrutinized to ensure that it was as similar as possible to that which the Miep and Jan Gies and the Frank family had from 1942-1944.

By the end of the first episode of “A Small Light,” it is apparent that Miep’s perspective is not a well-known story, but should be. Executive Producer Susanna Fogel calls the miniseries “a story of just an ordinary, relatable woman, not a historical icon the way that Anne is, so it feels like a person who could be you or me or your friend making a real choice.” Fogel also directed the first three episodes.

Throughout the miniseries, the question looms: what would you do in Miep’s position?

Liev Schrieber, who plays Otto Frank, shared his thoughts on the risks that Miep and Jan took to protect the Frank Family.

“[Miep] says ‘yes,’ which I think is in our nature, and that’s what I found moving about the script,” Schreiber said. “We need to remind ourselves that that’s what’s in our nature—it’s to say ‘yes” and you can deal with the consequences of that later.”

Schreiber continued on how his own Jewish roots played a part in taking the role of Otto Frank.

“I’m half-Jewish on my mother’s side, and in order to do that well I really feel like I have to find a reason to do it differently,” Schreiber said. “In the case of defiance, there’s a narrative that Jews went like lambs to the slaughter. And for me to play a partisan, to play someone who represented his people in a defiantly aggressive and violent way was another color that I didn’t believe was being used. The problem is it’s very sensitive stuff and it’s difficult stuff and you’re really at the mercy of the writer in terms of what aspect of your culture they choose to explore. And you’ve just got to look for opportunities where you really can do something you haven’t seen before. You really can do something that is a fresh take. And for me, when I read this, it was a very, very fresh take on what a lot of people think is a Jewish story. And it’s not a Jewish story, it’s a human story.”

The same sentiment was echoed by showrunner Joan Rater.

“It’s what anyone would do,” Rater said. “The truth is not anyone would [help hide Jews from the Nazis] because not everyone did, but Miep did. That really drove us to understand why this 4 foot 11, blue-collar woman —newly married —right away said, yes. There’s a lot of things we explore in the series. One is that she really understood what it was like to be an ‘other’ and an immigrant in Amsterdam and that’s why she bonded so deeply and instantly with Otto.”

Rater, along with co-showrunner Tony Phelan, took painstaking time to ensure accuracy of everything on the set and in the dialogue. They spent years laying the groundwork for production.

“Joan and I started this project about six years ago and we’re able to avail ourselves in all the research on not only the Franks but also Miep and Jan,” Phelan said. “We hired a Dutch researcher and translated a lot of Miep throughout our many, many interviews. So we did our own research and dug into their history as well as the history of the Dutch resistance. And so that kind of bedrock gave us the ability to then tell [Miep’s] story and tell the story of what happened outside.”

Miep Gies passed away in 2010 in the Netherlands at the age of 100.

All of the main cast members who spoke with the Journal took it upon themselves to dive deep into researching their roles. Also among them is actress Ashley Brooke, who plays the role of Anne Frank’s older sister Margot. Not only did Brooke do her own research but she also tapped into her family’s firsthand history with the Holocaust. Her paternal grandmother and great-aunt were both Holocaust survivors.

“While most people have heard about Anne Frank, many people don’t know that Anne had an older sister—admittedly, I was one of those,” Brooke told the Journal. “I felt that Margot’s character, in a way, represents the lesser-known victims of the war, like my grandmother, and I took this very seriously. I learned as much as I could about Margot before my initial audition (which was a self-tape) because I wanted my characterization of her to be as authentic as possible.”

Fogel said that the story is generally appropriate for people starting around Anne Frank’s age, 14.

“It’s probably the best age at which you can start to metabolize that kind of story,” Fogel said. “Not just because of the stakes of the Holocaust, but also because of Miep’s life—it examines her romantic life and there’s themes that feel a little bit “adult” in that way. But at the same time, we want it to be accessible and entertaining to a younger audience of Anne’s age, because she was obviously enduring all of that.”

Powley spoke about how the authenticity of the surroundings and historical accuracy made it easier to portray the heavy difficult tones.

“They wanted it tonally to have a contemporary feel to make it relatable to audiences, even though it’s historically accurate,” Powley said. “It feels real and tangible and present. That made it easier for us in our dialogue and our vernacular with each other. Everyone knows how this story ends and where it’s going to go. It did get heavy and obviously upsetting the further along we got in the story. But by then, we knew each other so well and we had really good dialogue with each other.”

The on-screen chemistry between Powley and Cole as Miep and Jan Gies is apparent and carries the series through breathtaking scenes that took place not even 80 years ago.

“I’ve adored working with Joe and more than I’ve adored working with any actor on any project, it really was very special,” Powley said.

There is no doubt that audiences will be encouraging each other to watch “A Small Light.” There is so much talent and heart both in front and behind the camera that will draw you into this story of hope, hiding and despair. Throughout the month of May, expect to see larger and larger audiences tuning in for the next pair of episodes. Fortunately, audiences will also have a week to digest the range of heavy emotions they will be experiencing between them.

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