In her 100 years of life, Miep Gies life philosophy was simple: do the right thing.
The Austrian-born, Netherlands-raised woman is best known for saving the papers to Anne Frank’s diary and hiding the Frank family in Otto Frank’s secret annex from the Nazis during World War II.
Nearly 80 years after Otto’s return from Auschwitz as the only surviving member of the Frank family, National Geographic is releasing a series about the inspirational story of Miep Gies.
Premiered May 1, A Small Light chronicles the bravery of Otto’s (Liev Schreiber) secretary, Miep (Bel Powley). Alongside her husband Jan and a tight-knit group of trustworthy friends, Miep facilitates the hiding of Otto and his family in the face of the Nazi occupation of Holland.
“We always kept reminding ourselves, “Don't play the end of this story at the beginning because in the time that they were living in, in their present, they didn't know,’” Powley explains to Los Angeles Confidential of approaching the historical subject matter. “They did live in hope every day. Then they got so, so, so close to being all right.”
Filming for A Small Light took place from June through December 2022 in Prague where they filmed on soundstages, including a three-story set replica of Otto’s business, Opekta, which was topped by the annex. They also went to Amsterdam for three weeks to film exterior shots, like outdoor scenes near the canals and bicycling.
Creators Tony Phelan and Joan Rater had been working on A Small Light for seven years, so for role prep, Powley was overloaded with source material. But when it came time to act, her priority was to remember they were making television.
“I also [had] to focus on the narrative that we’re trying to tell,” Powley says. She streamlined the research and focused on Miep’s book, Anne Frank Remembered.
Powley also got to meet Miep’s granddaughter while on set. “I think it was surreal for her,” she recalls. “It’s her grandma. I can't imagine even though my grandma never did anything as heroic as Miep or went through such an intense, crazy time. But I can't even imagine seeing someone play my grandma when she was young because to me, my grandma is an old lady. Do you know what I mean? So I think it was just a very surreal, weird experience for her. But she seemed happy with it after the premiere.”
Read on for more from Powley about A Small Light.
How did wardrobe help you get into character?
I've said this before, but I often do shy away from period stuff because sometimes corsets and the wardrobe and feeling a bit trussed up makes me feel distant from the character and I can't access it. It doesn't feel tangible or something. But our costume designer Matthew Simonelli is so talented, and it was actually his first-ever period show. Which I actually think was a really good shout from Susanna Fogel who hired him because sometimes you'll do period shows and they'll be like, “Oh, it's set in 1942, so everyone must be wearing exactly what everyone wore in 1942.” That's not how people were. You might wear your grandmother's jumper that was from the 1910s or everyone styles stuff really differently. And that's what Matthew was really amazing at doing. Everything that he put me in felt really tangible and lived in and styled in my unique way that I think Miep would have done it and that made becoming Miep way easier. And similarly with the sets as well; they felt very lived in and every detail was thought through.
This series has a lot of difficult moments. How did you unwind after filming the especially heavy scenes?
I will say that I think filming this intense of a subject and these really sad, upsetting scenes made us more of a team just in terms of the crew and the cast. It brought us closer together, almost like we all needed to blow off steam afterward. We would all go out for lots of dinners together off set and have karaoke nights and just really enjoy each other's company and look after each other.
For me personally, sometimes you're okay and then sometimes something will really get to you. I found the scene in episode eight where after we found out that the girls aren't coming back and Miep goes to tell Jan at the train station. I found that really, really upsetting. I think it was in part because we were filming with a lot of extras who actually had really shaved their heads and stuff and are playing the people who are coming back from the camps. It was pretty harrowing. And also by then, I had become really close with Billie Boullet and Ashley Brooke, who play Anne and Margot. Just thinking about them and that situation really got to me. I guess I could really empathize with Miep.
A Small Light also has a lot of lovely moments. Do you have a favorite scene from these lighter instances?
Firstly, I love working with Billie in every scene that I did with her. She's so brilliant and I think she brings something so natural and special and effervescent in her playing as Anne. It was so easy. I actually loved doing the scene when she's trying to say that she likes Peter and we're brushing each other's hair. It was just really fun doing that scene with her because we improvised a little bit. She's just a very natural actor, which is great to play with.
Why do audiences of our modern era need to see A Small Light and what do you hope people take away from Miep?
I think it's important to keep these stories alive because there are less and less Holocaust survivors alive today. And we must remind ourselves and not forget what happened. But beyond that, it's also important to retell these stories because of how relatable it is to today. The fight for refugees. They fled their country because they were kicked out because of who they were and we're now living in the biggest refugee crisis the world has ever seen. Antisemitism is on the rise, a war in Ukraine, authoritarian regimes popping up all over the world— there are so many parallels and that's why it's important that we make our retelling of this part of history and our version of the story relatable. That's why it's important to us that it feels contemporary because we want people to think about the world now and think about what would I do in that situation.
I feel like television often explores the gray area of humanity, but Miep and Jan are so black and white about doing what’s right.
Yeah, and that really was Miep’s mantra until the day that she died. It's simple. We know what the right thing to do is and we're all hardwired to know that we have the good inside us. Don't call me a hero. Don't put me on a pedestal. You don't have to be special in order to help others. We can all do small or big acts of kindness and that will make the world a better place.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photography by: National Geographic for Disney/Dusan Martincek