The true story of the woman who helped Anne Frank hide from the Nazis during the Second World War is dramatised in National Geographic limited series A Small Light. Stars Bel Powley and Joe Cole tell DQ about playing the inspiring characters at the centre of this factual drama.
Immortalised by her diaries, Anne Frank was the young Jewish German girl who wrote down her experiences of everyday life hiding from Nazi persecution in an annex in Amsterdam during the Second World War. But while the story of Anne and her family is well known, relatively little is known about the people who strived to protect them in the most dangerous of circumstances.
National Geographic limited series A Small Light now dramatises the inspirational true story of Miep Gies, a young, carefree and opinionated woman who was asked by her employer, Otto Frank, to help hide his family – wife Edith, eldest daughter Margot and Anne.
The rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany and increasing antisemitism led Otto to move his family to Amsterdam, where he ran a business selling gelling agents for jam. Miep started working for him as a secretary.
After the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, approximately eight months after the Second World War began with the invasion of Poland, Otto revealed to Miep that his family needed to go into hiding and asked her to help keep them safe, providing them with food and medicine. Miep didn’t hesitate, despite the danger she too would be in if she was found to be involved.
For two years, the Frank family and several others remained in their hiding place – the annex of Otto’s business premises at Prinsengracht 263 – supported by Miep, her husband Jan and others. After they were discovered in August 1944, Otto would be the only member of the family to survive life in Nazi concentration camps, and he would later help share their experience in the annex by publishing Anne’s diary.
With a modern sensibility that weds a historical story with a relationship drama, A Small Light looks at the events from the perspective of Miep and Jans, a young couple newly married in Amsterdam who find themselves under immense pressure in their devotion to helping their friends. Bel Powley and Joe Cole star as Miep and Jan, alongside Liev Schreiber (Otto Frank), Billie Boullet (Anne Frank), Amira Casar (Edith Frank), Ashley Brooke (Margot Frank) and Rudi Goodman (Peter van Pels).
Produced by ABC Signature and Keshet Studios for National Geographic and Disney+ internationally, the eight-part series comes from writers and showrunners Joan Rater and Tony Phelan (Grey’s Anatomy, Fire Country), plus lead director Susanna Fogel (The Flight Attendant).
“For me, it was a total revelation. I knew about the Franks and Anne and her diary, but I didn’t know anything about Miep and Jan,” Powley tells DQ at French television festival Canneseries, where the first episode was screened ahead of its launch on Nat Geo in the US yesterday and Disney+ internationally today.
“It’s a story you feel like you know; it feels familiar and everyone knows the image of Anne Frank,” says Cole “The reality is there’s so much more to uncover, and Tony and Joan did a fantastic job of diving deep into that. They worked with some amazing Dutch researchers and they armed us with tons of books, documentaries and stuff to be getting on with. I learned a lot, and hopefully people who watch it will be able to learn the same, as well as enjoying the ride.”
Powley, who is Jewish, was offered the part of Miep on Holocaust Memorial Day – a moment she admits was “really special” owing to her personal connections to this part of history. And the actor also felt strongly that if A Small Light was going to re-explore this period, it had to be done in a fresh and accessible way.
“I was so pleased when I read the pilot because I felt really connected to the characters,” she says. “It feels modern. I felt like the show would make people think, ‘What would I do?’ in terms of what’s going on in the world now, rather than it being a dusty, sepia-toned retelling of the Anne Frank story we all know. That’s what made me really excited.”
Cole agrees that the subject matter may conjure a feeling among viewers that they have seen this story before, but he too was drawn in by the vision of the series shared by the showrunners and director Fogel.
“They’re trying to bring this to a whole new audience and make it fresh and allow people to really access these characters and make them feel like they understand and can relate to these characters. So that was exciting,” he says.
The modern edge to this predominantly English-language series comes across in the way the characters speak, their words not bound up in the show’s 1940s setting. The production and costume design, though steeped in the period, also bring a fresh air of authenticity to the drama.
“Whenever I put on any of Miep’s costumes, it felt real, rather than like just being trussed up in some period outfit,” Powley says.
“The instinct myself, Bel and the other actors had is just one of truth and wanting it to be believable and authentic,” Cole explains. “There’s a lot of period drama that is steeped in staccato way of speaking and this received pronunciation. This was more about bringing the truth out, and hopefully we’ve done that.
“It’s also less about the overarching facts,” Powley adds. “It’s more about the human experience. Everyone knows what happened to the Franks, everyone knows what happened during the war, but this is also about what these people were going through personally. It’s about marriage, fathers and daughters. It’s about so many human experiences that people can relate to.”
Powley also believes the decision to dramatise Miep’s story will help viewers connect with the show more than they would if the facts were simply relayed in a documentary style.
“We know the facts, so that’s why it’s important dramatising it in this way, as it’s just going to make people connect,” she says. “And it will also bring in a younger audience who may not know about this part of history and may not have even read Anne Frank’s diary”
Cole picks up: “You know about Anne Frank, you feel you know about her, about the annex, what was happening behind the door – but you don’t really know about the people who protected them. For me, it’s the most interesting part of the story and it’s completely captivating, what these people were doing, and you’re going to feel that when you watch the show.”
Powley and Cole were certainly inspired by the real-life characters they portray on screen – a young couple learning about each other in the early days of their marriage while placed under extraordinary pressures.
“People talk about the pressures of marriage. I can’t imagine… it’s insane,” Powley exclaims. “This is a young, newly married couple living it up in Amsterdam and then suddenly they’re faced with this extraordinary situation. They’re totally inspiring to me. They stayed together until they died, over 100 years old.
“Their marriage wasn’t going to wait until the war was over. They were going through learning about each other and being a young married couple, just with these extraordinary pressures.”
“Fundamentally, they’re aligned in their beliefs,” Cole notes. “They’re good people and they believe in treating people right, they just have different ways of going about it. Miep wants to do everything to help them; Jan at times wants to be a bit more subtle or do things more quietly. There’s some really nice ying and yang there and they complement each other well. That’s why they were together for so long.
“But we tried to create an element of fun in their relationship. There were interviews we were reading with them, and Miep’s funny. We tried to recreate that and have a lightness between each other when we were doing some of those more intimate two-handers.”
When she accepted the role, the first thing Powley did was go to Amsterdam, where she got on a bike and retraced Miep’s cycle routes through the iconic city, from her apartment to her route to work and the road where, as seen in the show’s first episode, Miep takes Margot through a checkpoint. The cast also had tours of the Anne Frank House, where Powley was able to sit at Miep’s desk.
But the root of her performance comes from something Miep said – “But even an ordinary secretary or a housewife or a teenager can, within their own small ways, turn on a small light in a dark room” – a quote that also gives the show its title.
“That really was her mantra,” the actor says. “She was saying, ‘I am not a hero, don’t call me a hero. Don’t call me special because I did this, I acted bravely. Anyone could do this.’ She just had this unwavering sense of right and wrong. She had the confidence to execute it and she was completely egoless. So it was about tapping into that for me.”
Meanwhile, Cole was also moved by being in Amsterdam, where real places – such as the street below the Franks’ apartment – were used as filming locations alongside studio stages in Prague that doubled for Otto’s offices and the annex.
“We were filming on the same streets where there were buildings Jewish people were being pulled out from and sent to concentration camps,” he says. “We did this one sequence where Nazis are pulling families out of this house, and two people in the block had remembered when it happened all those years ago. They were four or five years old and their parents and other families had been taken, they’d been left. We were filming there again and they said it was weirdly cathartic, in a way, for them to see their stories being told and how they remembered it. For me, that’s when it really hit home. Going to the Anne Frank House, seeing all the imagery of Anne Frank as a child and a lot of famous photographs, it really puts into perspective what we’re trying to do here.”
While the Anne Frank story is well known, A Small Light focuses on Miep, Jan and those who put themselves in danger to help others, refusing to see themselves as heroes despite their astonishing bravery.
“They just had an unwavering sense of right and wrong,” says Powley. “They just knew what the right thing to do was, and that’s an inspiration to everyone.”
tagged in: A Small Light, ABC Signature, Amira Casar, Ashley Brooke, Bel Powley, Billie Boullet, Disney, Joan Rater, Joe Cole, Keshet Studios, Liev Schreiber, National Geographic, Rudi Goodman, Susanna Fogel, Tony Phelan