‘A Small Light’ tells Anne Frank’s iconic story from the perspective of those who hid and sustained her extended family
There have been no shortage of retellings of Anne Frank’s iconic book “The Diary of a Young Girl.” From the time it was first published in 1947 as Het Achterhuis (The Secret Annex) in Dutch in a small edition of 3,036 copies and went on to become one of the most translated books in the world, it’s been adapted to every medium imaginable – from stage to screens big and small, as a musical, as a dance interpretation, even as a 2017 graphic diary. The first play version of “The Diary of Anne Frank” hit Broadway in 1955 and proved a rousing success, running more than 700 performances and earning its playwrights a Pulitzer Prize. A 1959 theatrical film directed by George Stevens earned eight Academy Award nominations and won three: for Shelley Winters as supporting actress as well as its cinematography and art direction/set decoration.
Yet throughout all of the wartime story’s many renderings, there have been precious few projects that cast a primary focus on those who helped to hide and protect Anne and the extended Frank and van Pels families. The main one came out 35 years ago: the 1988 made-for-TV movie “The Attic: The Hiding of Anne Frank” that starred Mary Steenburgen and Paul Scofield. Now comes the fact-based “A Small Light, a powerful eight-part limited series from NatGeo that premieres with a pair of installments on May 1 and streams the next day on Disney+.
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Reaching beyond the tale of Anne Frank, “A Small Light” is really the story of Miep Gies (played by BAFTA and Indie Spirit Award nominee Bel Powley) and somewhat less her husband Jan (portrayed by Joe Cole). Miep was a secretary in Otto Frank’s (played here by Liev Schreiber) company in the Netherlands in 1942 when the heat of Nazi occupation during World War II became too great. He asked his employee Miep to hide him and his Jewish family (along with friends the van Pels and dentist Fritz Pfeffer) to escape deportation and persecution.
Thus began a two-year ordeal in which Miep and her husband protected and sustained eight souls in a previously unoccupied area of a home in Amsterdam that came to be known as the Secret Annex. For those many months, the couple dedicated their lives to keeping the Franks (including Otto and Anne), the van Pels’ and Pfeffer out of sight and fed – gathering food and provisions from several locations so as not to raise suspicions and delivering letters. It’s in the hiding place where Anne wrote her diary. Interwoven are glimpses of members of the resistance who assisted Miep and Jan.
The series illuminates the daily risks taken by the couple and the ways it took over their lives. Screening the first three episodes, Powley and Schreiber are clear Emmy contenders as lead actress/actor in a limited series for their work in this exceptional Holocaust drama. Again, what’s particularly interesting in “A Small Light” is the different way that a story we all think we know so well is told, with Anne herself taking something of a back seat to the tale of her protectors.
SEELiev Schreiber (A Small Light)
Before those being hidden were discovered and the hiding place was stripped by the Nazi authorities in August 1944, it was Miep Gies who kept Anne’s diaries and saved them in her desk drawer with the goal of giving them back to Anne once they reunited. Instead, she gave them to her father Otto Frank, the sole survivor of the Secret Annex. He would publish his daughter’s memories into the book that’s still shared around the world.
“A Small Light” gets its title from Gies’ shunning of calling herself a hero later in life, saying, “No one should ever think you have to be special to help others. Even an ordinary secretary or a housewife or a teenager can turn on a small light in a dark room.” Gies died in 2010 at 100.
The Limited Series categories at this year’s Emmys are shaping up to be especially stacked and competitive, with “A Small Light” looking for nomination attention against the likes of “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” (Netflix), “Fleishman Is in Trouble” (FX on Hulu), “Dead Ringers” (Prime Video), “White House Plumbers” (HBO), “Daisy Jones & the Six” (Prime Video), “George & Tammy” (Paramount and Showtime), “Extrapolations” (Apple TV+), “Black Bird” (Apple TV+), “Tiny Beautiful Things” (Hulu) and “Great Expectations” (FX), among many others.
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