When I first heard about Nat Geo’s A Small Light, I was equal parts intrigued and immediately concerned. The series focuses on the story of Miep Gies, as opposed to on the eight people she helped survive the nazis for over two years — and only one who managed to survive overall, Otto Frank. On the surface, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Often, though, taking the focus away from the victims tends to fail. And, right now, the situation is…not good, to put it mildly.
Holocaust education is at risk. Nazi-style persecution is on the rise. And even Anne Frank’s story, one of the few that still manages to make its way into classrooms — though often misused once it gets there — is facing bans. Even more concerning, the last of the survivors will not be alive much longer to tell their stories. And there’s also the possibility, in the middle of all that, for a misplaced “white savior” rewrite of history. Add all that together, and no one should wonder where my concern came from. But then, I saw the trailer, found out there were plenty of Jewish people behind the scenes, and thought…maybe.
A Small Light is not, and actively works against becoming, what I initially feared it could be. The series does not ignore the nazi horrors, even if its perspective dictates that it can’t show the inside of a camp. Nor does it seek to turn those in hiding into mere props in Miep’s story. And, while yes, our hero is just that — a hero — the series doesn’t lionize her beyond recognition. Nor are those who didn’t resist made into pure evil caricatures.
Instead, the series is eight episodes that remind us that, yes, even the smallest act — going grocery shopping, pretending to live a “normal” life even as the world is descending into horror after horror around you, showing the people around you kindness when it’s illegal — can be a revolutionary one. It is eight episodes of damning reminders of how ordinary people callously turned a blind eye to what was happening around them because it didn’t affect them. And, meanwhile, those who had the courage to resist had to live double lives. People like Miep and Jan spent energy appeasing their now-unrecognizable friends and neighbors, as they saw — with eyes wide open — the brutality of roundups, slave labor in the streets, and whole lives reduced to whatever material possessions the nazis could make a profit off of.
Through Miep’s eyes, we see what others could not — would not. And, in that vision, we also see who she was.
The series is also, if nothing else, eight episodes of incredible performances. Bel Powley, as Miep, perfectly embodies what it is to know the consequences of doing the right thing, yet do it anyway. To feel very real terror, yet somehow find laughter and light in the darkest places. She paints the picture of someone forcing down all that passion, swallowing her words when necessary. But, when she does get a chance to unleash, it is exactly the furious explosion of emotion necessary.
Take, for example, the first episode. Even as Miep is trying to coach a terrified Margot into just moving forward and showing no fear, Powley keeps Miep’s own fear simmering just under the surface. And, then, there’s the betrayal, which comes much later. When those years of hiding families in the Secret Annex reach their eventual conclusion, in that moment of terror, she is nothing sort of stunning.
We’ll talk more at length about Billie Boullet’s portrayal of Anne Frank in our interview with her. However, she certainly deserves a mention here, as well. Suffice it to say that it’s difficult to even find the words, much less the explanation, for the instant, emotional reaction to seeing Boullet as Anne. There is something very raw and real that she brings back to life about that teenager in hiding, whose words have been distorted by so many.
Boullet’s Anne still certainly radiates a certain light, which those taught the “I still believe that people are really good at heart” line (and not much else) will definitely recognize. But here, we get her complaints, her moods, and her constant battles with her mother, too. Somehow, telling Anne’s story through Miep’s eyes and with Billie Boullet’s interpretation (of both the scripts and the girl’s diary) just plain works.
Also of note is Liev Schreiber’s portrayal of Otto Frank. If you’re used to seeing Schreiber command the camera’s attention, as Ray Donovan, or Victor Creed, or (you knew the Scream fangirl in me was gonna jump out here, right?) even Cotton Weary, you’re in for something totally different here. As Otto, he is quietly sort of…there. He’s a calming presence. But he’s also so obviously troubled, so desperate to just get his family through this horrible time.
Two of Schreiber’s most brilliant moments have one thing in common: Jewish ritual. And watching them both is an achingly bittersweet experience. He brings magic to two completely different situations that, while both involve candles, could not have come from more different emotional places. And when, toward the conclusion of the series, he turns around in a dark room and asks to be left alone…the emotion seeping out of every bit of him that we actually see — just the back of his body. Nothing else — is both difficult to watch and impossible to turn away from.
The entire cast is, truly, stacked with talent. To make note of one more: there’s a scene with Amira Casar that is unerringly haunting. It should absolutely stick with viewers long after the series is complete.
A Small Light features moments of hope that, if you don’t know how this story ends, might trap you. And even if you do know how it all ends, you get swept up them in spite of yourself. But that is what it (likely) was to live that day to day, to just keep trying. To keep hoping, fighting against the inevitable. Admittedly, the moment where reality comes crashing back in is that much more painful each time you feel it. With that being said, we should let ourselves get swept up. We must remember to treat the moments of levity as being as precious as they are. And that applies to both the stories here, and to what we are living through now.
With all of that being said, the series isn’t entirely perfect. Notably, it does fictionalize Miep’s story a bit. Yes, her husband Jan (Joe Cole, also in a noteworthy performance) was part of the resistance. But the number of people the series seems to indicate that the couple saved together is questionable. History does say they hid a college student in their home. However, some of the other choices on the series seem to be more wishful thinking than fact. Or, perhaps, it’s more indicative of something else. Perhaps the series merely uses the couple as stand-ins for others who helped ship Jewish children to (hopeful) safety.
Adding in any details that aren’t backed up by fact is a tricky situation. Some individuals exaggerating and/or outright lying about the Holocaust may lead all the wrong people to feel vindicated. Holocaust deniers love to use the rare falsehoods as proof that the entire story is a lie. But the series takes care to warn us, up front, that some things have been changed for dramatic effect. That warning is important. And, at this point, it’s actually a breath of fresh air to find a fictionalized account that takes this path.
Normally, it’s the tired, insulting “lambs to the slaughter” myth. Obviously, I can’t speak for everyone here. But I’m a bit sick of that approach, which rips away the facts of how insurmountable the challenges were. It’s, quite frankly, a modern-day nazi victory to forget how hard some people tried. Yes, this series focuses specifically on those in the Secret Annex: the Franks, the Van Pels family, and Dr. Fritz Pfeffer. But there are plenty of stories of resistance — both Jewish and otherwise — that are rarely, if ever, told.
So, a series like this one is, in many ways, long past due. Because it’s long past time someone speak up and say that not only did we fight back, but we did have help. Not everyone had helpers, and people were far more likely to just…not care. But it’s in directly removing all mention of resistance from our history lessons that we fail to learn it isn’t futile. It’s how we get…well, not just to Bergen-Belsen, where Anne ultimately died. But it’s how we get to where we are now, too.
What we should take from A Small Light, actually, is simple. Miep Gies was an extraordinary figure, precisely because she remained ordinary at a time when most people willingly became monsters. Her story should encourage us to take whatever small acts — to light whatever small lights — we can. As we see the darkness seeping in around us yet again, we can — and must — push it back. More than anything, though, we should seek out these stories. Not just Miep’s, and Anne’s, but so many others’. Helpers’, victims’, and survivors’ alike.
After all “the greatest gift you can give” is to listen to someone’s story. I wish I could take credit for that one, but it comes straight from Rubin Sztajer, who survived Bergen-Belsen. (A place that he called an extermination camp, not due to gas chambers…but because the nazis just let nature have its way.) And I know it did — because he told it to me when I listened to his story.
But, back to this series, specifically. A Small Light is simply this: its own great gift that revives quite a number of stories. Not just that of Miep and Jan Gies, but of those eight people in hiding, too. To a lesser extent, it also revives the other helpers at Opekta as well. The same goes to yet another figure we alluded to above. By telling Miep’s story, the series will probably introduce many people to the very real Kuno van der Horst. So, we get to reclaim yet more proof that, while difficult, it is possible to refuse to become one of them.
And, certainly, as Miep Gies gave the world the gift of Anne Frank’s words, and Anne the gift of being a published writer even after her death, perhaps we’ve owed Miep her own gift all along. Now, ABC Signature and Keshet Studios, along with all the creatives involved, have done exactly that.
With its first two episodes, A Small Light premieres on Nat Geo Monday, May 1, at 9/8c. Two episodes air each Monday until the series is complete, with episodes streaming on Hulu and Disney+ the next day.