Although Anne Frank’s story of hiding in an attic with her family during the Nazi occupation in Amsterdam is widely known, Nat Geo’s new limited series “A Small Light” tells the story of Miep Gies, Otto Frank’s secretary, who risked everything to save the Franks and many others. While Anne’s legacy is embedded throughout the series, it focuses on Miep’s tale of resistance, activism, and humanity. The show, created by former “Grey’s Anatomy” showrunners Tony Phelan and Joan Rater, features beautiful cinematography by Phelan, Susanna Fogel, and Leslie Hope, with a slight sepia tone to immerse the audience in the time period. The story begins on July 6, 1942, when Miep (Bel Powley) is tasked with getting Margot (Ashley Brooke), Otto’s eldest daughter, past a Nazi checkpoint and into the secret annex above the office building where Miep and Otto work. Miep takes many risks to combat the racist, authoritarian regime, and this is just the beginning.
After safely sequestering Margot, the series takes the audience back in time to 1933, nine years prior to the Franks’ disappearance from Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. We are introduced to Miep, a woman in her twenties who is focused on a life far removed from Germany’s newly established Nazi regime.
Miep, at the age of 24, is quite different from the captivating 33-year-old woman in “A Small Light.” She still resides with her adoptive parents and brothers and spends her days engaging in activities such as frolicking with her best friend Tess (Eleanor Tomlinson), dancing, drinking, and exchanging banter with Jan (Joe Cole), who would eventually become her husband. However, an ultimatum from her increasingly frustrated parents leads Miep to the Opekta office, which is managed by Otto Frank, a recent emigrant from Germany.
The pilot episode revolves around Miep’s backstory, introducing the audience to a woman who, as an immigrant, rejected tradition, championed the marginalized, and followed her own path. Miep’s relationship with the Frank family, especially Anne (played by Billie Boullet), becomes a pivotal element of the show. Therefore, when Amsterdam falls under Nazi control nine years later, Miep’s immediate willingness to assist Otto is unsurprising. The standout performance by Powley is characterized by her piercing blue eyes and unwavering commitment to doing what’s right, even in the face of societal indifference. This sets the tone for the series from beginning to end.
In “A Small Light,” Miep and Jan take center stage as they engage in acts of resistance amidst an increasingly hostile Amsterdam. Throughout the eight episodes, viewers witness Miep’s efforts to aid those in the annex by fulfilling shopping lists, offering emotional support, and even assisting additional Jewish refugees. Meanwhile, Jan’s defiant actions become more perilous as the series progresses, and the consequences of their choices are explored in depth by Phelan and Rater. Despite the strains that arise in their marriage and relationships with others due to the secrets and fear they must contend with, Miep and Jan remain committed to protecting the ostracized, not just the Frank family and the four additional people hiding in the annex. The show also highlights their determination to assist a wide range of individuals, from their landlady’s grandchildren and college students to babies, nurses, and workers at Amsterdam’s Jewish council.
The standout episode of the series is “Motherland,” the third installment, which portrays the detrimental effects of cramped and oppressive living conditions on mental health and well-being. This is sharply contrasted with the struggles of Miep, Jan, and other resistors, who battle to remain courageous in a world filled with hatred. The episode follows Jan as he undertakes the collection of a package, which results in a shocking revelation. Additionally, the confined living space in the annex fuels frustration and irritation, particularly for Edith Frank, whose increasing frazzled state is palpable.
The known conclusion of “A Small Light” infuses the viewing experience with a great deal of distress, but Rater and Phelan, along with writers William Harper, Ben Esler, and Alyssa Margarite, and Jacobson, intersperse moments of defiance, humor, and perseverance that provide a counterbalance to the series’ pervasive emotions of anger and terror. The handling of this delicate equilibrium is a remarkable achievement.
In both “A Small Light” and real life, there are no innocent bystanders; only those who choose not to act. Miep’s preservation of Anne’s diary ensured that history would not forget the girl’s voice, and it was returned to her grieving father, the only survivor among the eight people who had hidden in the annex. Through “A Small Light,” the viewer is shown the scars that humanity carries and the dire consequences of not confronting evil.