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A different angle on the Anne Frank story in 'A Small Light' | reviews, news & interviews

A different angle on the Anne Frank story in 'A Small Light'

A different angle on the Anne Frank story in 'A Small Light'

Bel Powley, Liev Schreiber and Joe Cole star in Disney's new eight-part drama

Joe Cole and Bel Powley as Jan and Miep Gies

The Diary of Anne Frank became a Broadway play and has formed the basis of a lengthy catalogue of films and TV series, but the name of Miep Gies is rather less well-known. Yet without Gies the Anne Frank story might never have reached the wider world, since it was she who helped the Frank family, along with four other Dutch Jews, to remain in hiding and evade capture by the Germans from July 1942 until their luck ran out in August 1944.

It was Gies, too, who kept Anne Frank’s diary safe after its author was arrested by the Gestapo, and who gave it to Anne’s father Otto when he returned to Amsterdam after surviving incarceration in Auschwitz. Otto edited the diary for its publication in 1947, and it has subsequently been translated into more than 70 languages.Anne FrankMiep Gies is one of the central characters in the new Disney+ series A Small Light, its title taken from a comment by Gies that “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.” Gies, who died aged 100 in 2010, told her own side of the story in Anne Frank Remembered (1988).

In A Small Light, Gies is played by Bel Powley, who felt somewhat in awe of her. “She really didn’t want to be put on a pedestal,” said Powley, after a screening in London. “She said I was just doing my duty as a human being, which was helping people who were in need.

“I think that was helpful to me to keep reminding myself that she wanted me to see a bit of myself in her. She wanted all of us to see ourselves in her. I think that helped with the pressure and the responsibility of playing a real person.”

Anne FrankThe series, written by Joan Rater and Tony Phelan and directed by Susanna Fogel, focuses shrewdly on the small details and the panicky claustrophobia of life in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. At first things seem to carry on almost normally, until the Germans start to turn the screw on the Jewish population (pictured above), systematically quashing the personal and professional freedoms they’d previously taken for granted. The regime was the natural breeding ground for snitches, collaborators and blackmailers, so any interactions with strangers became fraught with the danger of betrayal or denunciation.

At the core of the story are Miep’s relationships with her husband Jan, played with a nerdish diffidence by a bespectacled Joe Cole which conceals his own clandestine heroics as a determined Nazi-resister, and with Otto Frank. Liev Schreiber (pictured above) brings a kind of immense and melancholy calm to the role of Otto, who ran the Amsterdam branch of the German jam-making company Opekta where Miep was one of his employees. Otto had fled from Germany with his family in the mid-1930s to get away from the rising tide of anti-semitism in his homeland, only to find to his horror that it had followed him across Europe.

When the deportation process gets into full swing, the Franks and their Jewish comrades are forced to hide in some upper rear rooms in the Opekta building, its entrance concealed behind a bookcase. When Otto Frank asked Miep if she could help his family, he could hardly have anticipated the bravery and ingenuity she would bring to the task, carrying messages and shopping for food for the fugitives while maintaining a facade of carrying on as normal. We first see her in the pre-war years as a somewhat unfocused party girl, fond of boozy nights out with her posh but rather dim friend Tess (Eleanor Tomlinson, pictured below with Powley). There’s a warning of how things will develop when Tess makes a thoughtless comment about why it’s a good idea for the Jews to be made to keep to themselves, and it’s no surprise to find Tess later blithely hobnobbing with German officers and Dutch Nazis from the NSB.

Anne FrankAs events progress, Miep’s innate courage and unquenchable decency increasingly come to the fore, even if she’s sometimes lumbered with clankingly ahistorical dialogue that finds her, for instance, wishing someone to “have a good day”. As for Jan, he escapes by the skin of his teeth from an ill-advised effort to join an armed raid by the anti-German resistance, which ended disastrously.

Liev Schreiber, who’s Jewish and had a Ukrainian grandfather, also felt a personal connection to his portrayal of Otto and the message of A Small Light.

“We have to find a way to tell these stories to our children in a way that’s engaging and lets them understand that these patterns have a way of repeating themselves,” he said. “It’s hard to get my kids engaged in the Holocaust and so we’ve got to find new ways to tell these stories. Having spent some time now in Ukraine, I really appreciate the idea that we’re all hardwired to say yes to each other. We may not do it, but we’re hardwired to do the right thing. It’s in us.”

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