Anne Frank continues to resonate as perhaps the most famous symbol of Jewish suffering and persecution in the face of the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust during World War II. It was her teenage diary, after all, that remains perhaps the most vivid description of what it was like to live under Nazi occupation – specifically in Amsterdam between 1942 and ’44, while her family was in hiding and she wrote her famed remembrance of being sheltered out of view until a betrayal led to their being discovered.
It was a woman named Miep Gies, however, who provided a first-hand aural witness’s account of those hiding out in what came to be known as the Secret Annex. It’s her tale that’s told in “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+. It was Gies (played by BAFTA and Indie Spirit Award nominee and Gotham Award winner Bel Powley), a secretary in German immigrant Otto Frank’s (played here by Liev Schreiber) company in the Netherlands in 1942, who took it upon herself to hide the Frank family (along with friends the van Pels and dentist Fritz Pfeffer) to escape deportation and a concentration camp death.
Aside from Anne Frank’s father Otto, Gies is more responsible than any other single human tor the way Anne’s story has been told over the decades before she died in 2010 at 100 years old. But she came to relate the tale relatively late, keeping it largely to herself for some four decades until sharing her memories of Anne, Otto and the Annex. Her 1987 memoir, written in collaboration with Alison Leslie Gold, was entitled, “Anne Frank Remembered: The Story of the Woman Who Helped to Hide the Frank Family.” Even the title demonstrated an edge of modesty, as she did more than simply “help” hide the Franks. It pretty much all fell on her, with an assist from husband Jan Gies.
The book was immediately turned into the 1987 made-for-TV movie “The Attic: The Hiding of Anne Frank,” which was nominated for six Emmy Awards. Those included bids for Oscar winners Mary Steenburgen in the role of Miep and Paul Scofield as Otto Frank. It was also nominated for – and won – the Emmy for its writing, with William Hanley taking the prize for his adaptation of the book.
Then in 1995, a British documentary version of the Gies book also entitled “Anne Frank Remembered” won the 1996 Academy Award for documentary feature. It featured narration from Kenneth Branagh and diary readings from Glenn Close and Joely Richardson as well as archival footage of Otto and Anne Frank and a fresh interviews with both Gies and Otto’s brother Robert Frank. It aired originally on television in April 1995 before screening theatrically in February 1996.
Gies also played herself in voice in the 1999 animated feature “Anne Frank’s Diary.” And finally, there was the TV miniseries “Anne Frank: The Whole Story,” which was nominated for 11 Emmy Awards, winning two: for top miniseries and art direction. Also taking home a Humanitas Prize, it starred Ben Kingsley as Otto Frank and three-time Emmy nominee Lili Taylor as Miep. Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn was also in the cast.
Besides all of the above, there have been no fewer than than six other made-for-TV movies entitled “The Diary of Anne Frank” as well as the 1959 feature that won three Oscars (including for Shelley Winters) and received a Best Picture nomination. But “A Small Light” hopes by stand out from the pack by shining the spotlight back onto a much more contemporary-seeming Miep Gies.
Indeed, this isn’t Miep like we’ve seen her before. In the first two episodes screened as a world premiere at SXSW in Austin on March 17, she’s depicted as something of a flirty party girl who likes her drink and doesn’t yet have much of a life plan. It’s only after her adoptive parents force her to seek out work that she lands a job with Otto. When the Germans invade, Frank asks Miep to hide him and his family: She doesn’t think twice before agreeing. As Miep, Powley (who earned raves for “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” in 2015) is singularly terrific. It’s the kind of performance that could very well lead to an Emmy nomination, as could Schreiber as an intense but understated Otto. Also turning in fine work is Ashley Brooke as Otto’s daughter (and Anne’s sister) Margot Frank.
At last check, Powley had risen to ninth place in the Gold Derby combined count for movie/limited series lead actress with 40/1 odds.
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