Anne Frank’s story has been told many times, but recently filmmakers have been finding new approaches.
My Best Friend Anne Frank (2021) dramatised the friendship between the teenage diarist and Hannah Pick-Goslar, her classmate at nursery and the Jewish Lyceum in Amsterdam.
And the same year, the animation Where is Anne Frank brought the diarist’s imaginary correspondent to life in contemporary Amsterdam.
Now, a new eight-part series, A Small Light, created and written by the former Grey’s Anatomy husband-and-wife team Tony Phelan and Joan Rater, tells the Jewish teen’s story from the viewpoint of Otto Frank’s non-Jewish Austrian immigrant secretary, Miep Gies.
Sebastian Armesto and Hannah Bristow in A Small Light (Dusan Martincek / Disney)
She and her Dutch husband, Jan, put themselves on the line for two years aiding the Franks and their friends in the secret annex above Otto’s Opekta offices in Amsterdam.
They were ultimately unable to protect them from betrayal by a still unknown informant. But Miep did manage to save Anne’s diary.
She died in 2010 aged 100, and never wanted to be seen as a heroine. “That was her mantra,” says Bel Powley, the Shepherd’s Bush-born Jewish actor who plays Miep. “She said, ‘I’m not extraordinary. Don’t put me on a pedestal. We did our duty as human beings.’”
Her relatable ordinariness was what struck Rater as she and Phelan walked around the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and read about Miep. When Otto had asked her for help, she was 33, newly married, but she immediately said yes.
“Our son was about the same age and I remember thinking, ‘What would he do if his boss asked him to risk his life to save his family?’
Miep, played by Bel Powley, and Tess, played by Eleanor Tomlinson, cycle through the streets of Amsterdam (Dusan Martincek / Disney)
"He would say yes, but would have no idea what he was doing. He’d be afraid, and would sometimes not want to do it. That was the story that we wanted to show,” says Phelan.
A Small Light blows away the dust of decades and makes the characters feel like our living contemporaries.
The writers and Susanna Fogel (co-writer of the Beanie Feldstein comedy Booksmart), who directed multiple episodes, put us in the moment, and refuse to tug on our heartstrings by foreshadowing the tragic end we know is coming, but which the characters do not.
“We wanted the audience to feel no distance between themselves and the characters,” says Phelan.
In the show, Miep moves between the Franks’ isolated, enclosed space, and the outside world, where birds still sing, lovers still stroll along the canal, and parties still happen.
We also see the resistance of the 20,000 Dutch citizens who helped Jews and others threatened by the Nazis. Miep was courageous, but she was not unique.
By showing nurses, students, men of the cloth, and members of Amsterdam’s gay community fighting back, and the many others who collaborated or stood by, the creators place her in context.
Being on the right side is a moral choice, and something that makes the show timely, says its creators.
The house in Amsterdam where the Franks hid (Dusan Martincek / Disney)
“When I got this script, I was on the couch with my kids watching the war in Ukraine unfold,” says Liev Schrieber, the Jewish American actor who plays Otto Frank, and who has Ukrainian heritage on his mother’s side. “I read it and thought what a great idea to be retelling this story now.”
Fogel says the current relevance of the show’s themes has been liberating on their press tour. “We want to be able to talk about how we’re living in a really scary time. It’s not the subtext, it’s the text of our lives.”
In Prague (they also filmed in Amsterdam, including outside the Franks’ apartment), a railway station they scouted was being used as an intake centre for Ukrainian refugees.
“We actually had a couple of refugee film students working on our production,” says Fogel.
“They talked about how much they related to Miep, saying they wanted to help the friends of theirs who had stayed behind, how they were feeling guilty at not being there.”
When Phelan and Rater posted the trailer for A Small Light on their Facebook page, it got trolled, she says, by “some antisemitic, meme-posting moron.”
It shows, she says, that the show is needed. Rising antisemitism and Holocaust denial is making it increasingly important to find fresh ways to tell these stories for new generations. And when the survivors have gone, it will “be entirely on storytellers” to share them.
The writers mainly cast Jewish actors as the Jewish characters in A Small Light, but Fogel, who is Jewish, has mixed feelings about the argument that only Jews should play Jews.
“If I’m a Jewish actor, I don’t want to only be playing Jewish roles, so where do you draw the line in the other direction?
“We’re all a mix of many different things and in the conversation around this stuff it sometimes feels like someone other than the person themselves is deciding how they should be defined.”
When he was researching Otto, Schrieber said that one of the things that caught his attention was that he was “actually quite proud to be German.
“So much so I would even say so much that he was a bit of a nationalist. To be denied that nationality because he was Jewish was, I think, very difficult for him.”
Phelan and Rater, the couple who spent seven years researching the show, are not Jewish.
But as the series is about a righteous gentile, Phelan thinks that’s perfectly fine.
This show is about “allyship and community and humanity and coming together, and I hope that is the takeaway”, she says.
“And if we can use Disney Plus to wend our way into the homes of people of all ages, all over the world, then I would say that’s using a corporation for good, not evil. You know, come for their Marvel content and stay for this show.”
‘A Small Light’ streams on Disney Plus from May 2