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'A Small Light' Shines

It’s hard to watch a series about the persecution and attempted extermination of Jewish people in World War II. It’s equally challenging to review such a subject because it’s a sensitive topic and a deeply sad chapter of human history. Despite this, once I started watching ‘A Small Light,’ a new National Geographic series on Disney Plus, I was hooked.  It’s not a conventional story on this much-studied catastrophic event in human history.  Which, to be honest, came as a relief to me.  

Most people know the story of Anne Frank.  But, for those who don’t, Anne was a young Jewish girl of roughly 13, who kept a diary of her time spent in hiding from 1942 until her capture by the Nazis in 1944.  She would eventually die along with her sister of typhus while in the camps. Her diary was later recovered by her father Otto (sole survivor) after the war. He would go on to publish the diary.  Today it is one of the most popular books in the world.  In it, Anne writes about things relatable to all pre-pubescent girls: arguments with her parents, developing insecurities and crushes on boys  (One boy in particular, named Peter Van Pel, who was in hiding with the Franks during this time).  

Anne Frank (Billie Boullet) and Miep Gies (Bel Powley)

The main focus of A Small Light is not Anne and her diary, however.  Based on facts, this series is primarily about those that helped Anne and her family go into hiding.  

The show is genuinely eye-opening.  It successfully combines historical accuracy and context with characters that feel contemporary, real, and sympathetic.  I marveled at how relatable and human Miep Gies (Bell Powley), Otto (Liev Schreiber), and Anne Frank (Billie Boullet) were as characters.  

A part of that is the premise of the series. The Nazis have taken over Holland. The Jews are being hunted like animals. The idea of getting caught, having to hide, and performing clandestine tasks in secrecy are all inherently suspenseful things.  It makes for riveting drama. The historical context lends it a horrific undertone that is inescapable.

Instead of focusing primarily on the suffering of the Jewish people, however, we follow Miep and Jan Gies (Joe Cole): two non-Jews who risked their lives in trying to help Jewish people survive.  

Miep Gies (Bel Powley), Otto Frank (Liev Schreiber) and Nazi soldiers

None of the Franks, aside from Otto, are the main characters in A Small Light.  The series is really about Miep, a real-life woman who helped 8 Jewish men and women hide from the Nazis for two years.  At great risk to herself and her husband, Jan, who too acted as a dissident and co-conspirator during the latter years of World War II.  Not a frame goes by without either Miep or Jan. Their constant on-screen presence emphasizes how essential these two were to helping a few survivors amidst mass genocide.  Everything and everyone depends on them.  

The series starts out calmly enough. It’s 1933. We meet Miep, a free spirit without any job prospects, who lives with her adoptive parents in Amsterdam.  Miep is originally from Austria but was raised in Holland. She meets Jan at a bar. The two eventually marry.  

Trying to get her life started, Miep decides to take a job as a secretary to Otto Frank, who runs a business called Opekta, which specializes in selling pectin, an important component of jam. Otto is a German Jew that has fled the Nazis.  He’s eventually joined by his family in peaceful Holland. But things change.

We fast forward to 1942.  Miep agrees to help Otto and his family go into hiding to escape getting apprehended by the SS.  Along with the Franks, there are the Van Pels, mother, father, and son (played by Andy Nyman, Caroline Catz, and Rudi Goodman), and Miep’s dentist, Dr. Pfeffer (Noah Taylor). Miep becomes their lifeline. Risking prison and possibly death to supply these people with food and shelter.

Jan Gies (Joe Cole) and Miep Giest (Bel Powley

The show is an exploration of the day-to-day sacrifices Miep and Jan made to maintain the safety of those in hiding.  It leads to domestic quarrels between Miep and Jan, lying to close friends and generally putting off a safer, more normal life.

I do not wish to ruin the ending or reveal too much about how this story unfolds.  Knowing the Franks’ fate did not interfere with my enjoyment of the series.

Liev Schreiber is brilliant as Otto Frank.  His character is a tall man, with tremendous sensitivity and warmth.  While I have not watched Ray Donovan, I imagine the series made him a better, more versatile actor.  His accent is also near flawless here.

Bel Powley as Miep Gies is also amazing. It’s a tour de force performance. She has these big bright blue eyes that reveal her kindness and generosity combined with a sort of innocence. Miep never hesitates to help her friends in their time of need.  You know where her allegiances lie. And her slight stature speaks not to her tremendous bravery and resilience.

Dr. Pfeffer (Noah Taylor) and Miep Gies (Bel Powley)

Rounding out the cast are Amira Casar who plays Mrs. Frank, Ashley Brooke who plays Margot, the older Frank sister, and the aforementioned Billie Boullet who plays younger sister Anne. Boullet is quite incredible as Anne. She plays her with a lot of spirit and joy. Despite being trapped inside and forced to remain quiet, Anne was a positive presence that kept hope alive until the very end and Boullet conveys that beautifully.

As I mentioned earlier, A Small Light feels very now. The dialogue is quick and snappy and the character motivations are very relatable.  Many scenes feel like they could have transpired yesterday and not 80 years ago. It’s a genuinely awesome effect and I don’t quite know how they were able to pull that off. 

Additionally, the show provides a fresh take on this particular type of period drama.  We’re introduced to different characters and settings not conventionally depicted in these types of narratives.  Benign things like bicycle riding, drinking at bars, and looking for work appeal to modern audiences. It makes the entire viewing experience feel authentic. And the heavier aspects of the war are dealt with with a lot of skill and restraint which surprisingly makes A Small Light more effective and emotionally charged.  

Real life Jan and Miep Gies. Miep would go on to live to 100 years old.

Toward the end of the show, there’s a scene at a train station where many victims of the concentration camps dismount from trains and wander the platforms. From their appearance, we can determine where they are coming from and what horrors they endured. However, this is the dull, somewhat predictable aftermath.  A “life goes on” moment.  It encapsulates the war and its repercussions in a way rarely seen. A lot of A Small Light functions in that way. And it makes it one of the better stories of this kind ever told.