Bel Powley and Liev Schrieber star in a new drama about Anne Frank

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Bel Powley and Liev Schrieber star in a new drama about Anne Frank

A new version of the famous story focuses on Miep Gies, the brave and selfless lady who hid the family

Bel Powley as Miep Gies in A Small Light. Photo: National Geographic for Disney/Dusan Martincek
Bel Powley as Miep Gies in A Small Light. Photo: National Geographic for Disney/Dusan Martincek

It’s extraordinary that nearly 80 years after her murder by Nazis, aged just 16, Anne Frank has become a totem fought over in the culture wars, especially in America.

The religious right in certain states have attempted to ban her famous diary for years.  Although for many it has been for decades an educational tool to teach about what the Nazis did to a very ordinary Jewish family, it has been on a banned book list for years because of its ‘sexual content and homosexual themes’ – the ordinary desires of a teenage girl – and because of its ‘tragic story’. One school in Alabama rejected it from its library because ‘it was a real downer’.

Meanwhile for the left, in a different way, Anne has become a symbol of – astonishingly enough – ‘white privilege’ simply because her story is told. So it is perhaps an apt time for a new version of Anne’s story to be told, this time not from her lens but that from that of Miep Gies, Otto Frank’s former secretary, who was one of a tiny handful of people trusted with hiding the Frank family and five others, and keeping them alive.

Miep, played by Bel Powley, and Tess, played by Eleanor Tomlinson. Photo: National Geographic for Disney/Dusan Martincek

“I think it is important to make people connect to the story,” says British Jewish actress Bel Powley, who plays the non-Jewish Miep in A Small Light, a new series premiering on Disney+ next month. “We all know the facts, we know the numbers, we know the diary. What we’re trying to do here is to make people connect to this part of history, to humanise this part of history.

“Because Anne Frank has become so immortalised by her diary it’s important to remind people that she was just a young teenager going through what other teenagers were going through – as were her parents. Everyone can relate to having an argument with their boss, with their husband; everyone can relate to trying to parent their kids or even just needing to do a pee.”

The real Miep Gies

Bel, 31, leapt at the chance to play someone as quietly brave as Miep. “Her mantra for the rest of her life was, ‘I am not special, don’t put me on a pedestal, don’t call me a hero,’’’ says the actress. “The show is named after her quote which said, ‘Even an ordinary secretary or a housewife or a teenager can, within their own small ways, turn on a small light in a dark room.’

“At a time when we are all so insular and individualistic, it’s easy to be a passive bystander. But we should all be hardwired to know what is the right thing to do. She had no hesitation; she was incredibly brave but she didn’t want people to maker her saintly because it would make others feel like they couldn’t do the same thing.”

The exterior of the Opekta office (at centre) as seen in A Small Light. Photo:: National Geographic for Disney/Dusan Martincek

The Disney+ series is the idea of married writers Joan Rater and Tony Phelan who read about Miep, who was the same age as their son, when they visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. It made them curious about her life, the sacrifices that she made and the stress she must have been under.

They discovered a story of quiet resistance. Like Miep, her husband Jan, played by Joe Cole, helped to feed the family. A social worker, he was also a member of the Dutch resistance and altogether Miep and Jan helped protect many Jewish people even if, tragically, the hiding place of the Franks was eventually betrayed.

The writers knew they needed someone with gravitas to play Anne’s dad Otto Frank, whose friendship with Miep was one of the few things to survive the war. Having seen all his family wiped out in the Holocaust, he went to live with Miep and Jan for seven years. Miep had also found Anne’s diary and encouraged its publication.

Otto Frank, played by Liev Schreiber, walks with Miep Gies, played by Bel Powley. Photo: National Geographic for Disney/Dusan Martincek

Jewish actor Liev Schreiber admits that, having just finished his award-winning show Ray Donovan, he had considered turning down the script until he realised its contemporary relevance.

“When I got this script, I had just finished eight years of a television show and wasn’t particularly eager to work. I was enjoying having the time to spend with my kids,” recalls the father-of-three. “But then, of course, the war in Ukraine broke out and I’m sitting on the couch with them watching the news and trying to figure out how to explain that.

“In terms of Jewish identity – and I am not particularly religious but we do things like Seders – one of the things I’m proudest of, and feel connected to, is the Jewish freedom riders in the Civil Rights Movement. So many Jews got on those buses and had the sh*t kicked out of them for something that was important because of something they’d been through – either with the Holocaust or the pogroms. And I felt like I had to engage somehow, if nothing else for my kids’ sake. So that they would understand this is about them too.”

Liev, 55, who runs a charity giving aid directly to NGOs in Ukraine called Blue Check Ukraine said that he is aiming in his own small way to follow Miep’s example.

“I think it is hardwired into us as humans to care about each other and it is easy for me to support Blue Check Ukraine. It was not easy for Miep – it was hard. But helping someone else doesn’t have to be a big thing. It can be small mitzvah – just being kind to someone.”

Nicholas Burns as Mr. Kugler, Sally Messham as Bep, Ian McElhinney as Mr Kleiman, Bel Powley as Miep Gies Photo: National Geographic for Disney/Dusan Martincek

Two members of the Blue Check Ukraine board happen to also be board members of the Anne Frank House and were able to help Liev as he researched Otto Frank. Although exteriors were filmed outside the Anne Frank House, and the Frank’s former apartment in Amsterdam, most of the filming was done in Prague, where the secret annexe was carefully recreated.

“I was able to see things that hadn’t been made public before and one of the things that I found particularly interesting was the stuff that Otto didn’t want published in Anne’s diary. I also got a sense of him as a person who was, ironically, very proud to be German. He really enjoyed being German.

“I remember when my mother told me about the Holocaust, when I was small. I remember just thinking to myself, ‘Couldn’t I just say I wasn’t Jewish? I have green eyes and (at that time) very light hair.’ And it struck me in that story that being defined by others as Jewish, even though he wasn’t a religious person, prevented him from being German. It prevented him from being anything but Jewish.”

Bel Powley as Miep Gies. Photo: National Geographic for Disney/Martin Mlaka

For Liev this is the story of the personal but also one of humanity and helping each other. “One of the things that I really struggle with as a Jewish person is this narrative about the Holocaust that we went like lambs to the slaughter. There were partisans and people fought back and then you have someone like Miep who was willing to risk her life for a Jewish family.

“That’s why the Anne Frank story needs to be told again and again; things have a way of repeating themselves but trying to get a new generation interested and engaged in history is increasingly difficult. We need to look for patterns and fight them together.”

A Small Light is on Disney+

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