In the more than three decades that I’ve been a TV critic, I have rarely written that viewers should watch something. This is one of those times.
You should watch the National Geographic Channel’s “A Small Light,” the eight-part retelling of the Anne Frank story — this time primarily from the perspective of Miep Gies, the young woman who helped hide the Frank family from the Nazis for more than two years. You should watch it because it’s important to remember what happened.
And you should watch “A Small Light” because it’s very good. Very entertaining. Very humorous.
That sounds non-sequitur. Anne Frank’s story has moments when it’s funny? The story of a Jewish girl who hid out from the Nazis with her family, only to be caught and sent to concentration camps, where she died at the age of 15? It’s true. And it’s not disrespectful in any way as the eight-part series beautifully blends tragedy with humor.
“A Small Light” centers on Miep, a “party girl” who “loved dancing,” said Bel Powley, who plays her. “She was a frivolous, fiercely independent young woman. And then she … found herself in extreme circumstances.”
Born in Vienna, Miep suffered malnutrition in the chaos after World War I, so her parents sent her to live with a foster family in the Netherlands. In the early 1930s, Miep is a fun-loving young woman who is resisting her foster parents’ efforts to marry her off to one of her foster brothers, and she’s looking for a job. Her new boss is Otto Frank (Liev Schrieber), the father of Anne Frank.
And when Otto asks Miep to help hide his family from the Nazis occupying Amsterdam, she doesn’t hesitate to say yes, even at the risk of her own life. Or at the cost of her happiness as she enters into a marriage of convenience with Jan Gies (Joe Cole), which turns into a genuine love affair.
Honestly, when I attended a screening of the first two episodes of “A Small Light” several months ago, I wasn’t expecting much. I’ve seen the Anne Frank story told and retold — in both dramas and documentaries — many times, and I thought it unlikely that this would be anything different.
I was wrong.
Powley, whose mother is Jewish, hit it on the head when she said she was “blown away by how modern and current and relatable [series creators Tony Phelan and Joan Rater]’s take on this story felt, … rather than just feeling like you’re being banged over the head with a bunch of historical facts.” And, she said, “I think that that’s incredibly important in the current political climate. I mean, anti-Semitism is on the rise.”
Director/executive producer Susanna Fogel said the tone of “A Small Light” appealed to her because “Miep is a person who makes jokes, and then she’s put in this situation which is incredibly serious. … She’s not relating in a self-serious, historical, dry way. She’s someone you can relate to and see yourself in.”
Cole said he was surprised when he got to the set and discovered that “Susanna was finding the fun and the humor in some of the darker moments. And at first, I was thinking, ‘Wait, can we do this? Are we allowed to do this? This is a period drama about the Holocaust, about World War II.’ And then when you watch the show back and … it just works so beautifully.”
While there’s a surprising amount of humor in “A Small Light,” it is, of course, by no means a comedy. Even when you’re laughing, there’s a sense of terror and tragedy hanging over the narrative — a parallel to what Anne and her family experienced.
‘It’s a human story’
Schreiber, whose mother is Jewish, praised Phelan and Rater — the series’ creators, executive producers and writers — for finding a way to tell the story differently.
“This is not the Anne Frank story you were taught [about] in elementary school,” he said. “They’ve found nuance in this. … And it’s not really a Jewish story. It’s a human story. … It’s not easy to reinvent the wheel every time because a lot of [retellings of Anne’s story] are similar.”
Rater said that although Anne’s story was once taught in schools as a matter of course, “that’s no longer the case. When we visited the [Anne Frank] museum, the people running the museum said … visitors just have no idea of her story. And so I love that we get to share her story and introduce her story to some people.”
And to tell her story “from another point of view. … You thought you knew this story? Well, here’s more. … One thing I hope is that it will drive people to read Anne’s book, to do their own deep dive into the material.”
A challenge for viewers
“A Small Light” also issues a challenge, of sorts, to viewers. If an ordinary young woman like Miep Gies could stand up and do the right thing, why can’t the rest of us?
“When Miep was asked by Otto to save his life, she said ‘Yes’ right away. No hesitation,” Rater said. “And he said, ‘No, no, no. Take the night. Think about it. What I’m asking you to do is risking your life.’ And she said, ‘I don’t need to think about it. It’s what anyone would do.’ … And the truth is not anyone would, because not everyone did, but she did.
“And that really drove us to understand why this 4-foot-11, ordinary, blue-collar woman, newly married, right away said ‘yes’ and kept saying ‘yes’ every day for two years. We sort of want to pose the question: ‘What would you do?’”
• The first two episodes of “A Small Light” air back-to-back Monday at 7 p.m. on the National Geographic Channel, Nat Geo Wild and Lifetime. The episodes will start streaming Tuesday on Disney+ and Hulu. Subsequent episodes will debut one at a time Mondays on NGC and Tuesdays on Disney+ and Hulu.
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