It’s not easy to justify a new take on Anne Frank’s story. Her life and death are so tragically familiar that they’ve become emblematic of the Holocaust itself, and it’s hard to say something new about something so well-known. It’s an accomplishment, then, that A Small Light does indeed find a fresh perspective on what happened in that attic in the Netherlands. By focusing on Miep Gies, who helped the Franks hide and eventually rescued Anne’s diary, National Geographic’s limited series becomes a tale of life-saving allyship.
Crucially, the show presents Miep (Bel Powley) as a person of privilege in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. She saunters in and out of markets and Nazi police stations, lives in the same building as a Nazi officer, and at one point throws a potato at passing German soldiers without the slightest consequence. (They just laugh at her.) But while she appears to live beyond the horrors of World War II, she is of course a secret member of the Dutch resistance. Along with her husband Jan (Joe Cole) and several co-workers who help her hide the Frank family and their friends, she leverages her privilege to become a small light during a dark time.
That alone gives the series an urgent purpose. Considering how many people are currently fighting for their rights in the United States, the story of a non-Jewish, Austrian-born Dutch woman fighting on behalf of the persecuted feels especially vital. The show asks viewers to consider what they would be willing to sacrifice in the name of allyship and community, particularly with a conflict at their doorstep. As her relationship to the Franks grows deeper and the conditions in Amsterdam get more dire, Miep and Jan take even bigger risks, and those who know World War II history will understand the kind of danger that creates for everyone involved.
However, this is not a torture porn story. A Small Light is thoughtful about depicting hope and joy, even during the darkest days of the occupation. In a scene later in the season, Miep and Jan are forced to consume tulip bulb soup out of desperation when the war has interrupted the food supply chain. Jan immediately pokes fun at Miep, who tries to keep high spirits by pretending to enjoy every dirt-colored spoonful. A potentially dreadful moment turns comedic as these two war-worn soldiers burst out in laughter over the absurdity of the situation.These moments of brightness, in the midst of a darker story about oppression and bigotry, keep the show’s eight episodes from becoming an excruciating slog.
The first few episodes do move quite slowly, and the series on the whole leans toward a G-rated sensibility that’s suited for viewers of all ages. (It will also air on Disney+, after all.) There may be some who rankle at a “family-friendly” depiction of this story, particularly since we have become accustomed to television that depicts oppression with traumatizing violence. But by relying on the audience’s built-in knowledge about the atrocities of the Holocaust (or perhaps trusting family members to teach younger viewers what they don’t already know), A Small Light is able to focus less on brutality than the ways everyday people can subvert fascism. When we follow Miep and Jan smuggling children out of the city to avoid persecution, we’re taught just as much about living under an oppressive regime as we would if we saw someone getting assaulted.
It’s easier to lean into Miep’s story when the show looks great, too. Like National Geographic’s Emmy-winning biographical anthology series Genius, A Small Light is firmly rooted in a time and place, filmed on location in Amsterdam and Prague with rows of 1940s cars and interiors that include vintage dishware and mechanical jam-making equipment. And while elements of the show’s dialogue and performances skew modern — one character tosses off the phrase “we’re gonna start a fire!” like he’s in a teen comedy — there’s an overall specificity that makes the story feel urgent.
The urgency never wanes. Partway through the season, Miep is forced to reevaluate the allegiances of the people around her, as even her best friend begins shrugging off the ongoing treatment of Jewish people. A storyline like this persuasively argues for tangible action, when passive disregard would be easier. That moral clarity keeps a fire burning inside this lavishly produced entertainment.
A Small Light premieres May 1 at 8:00 PM on National Geographic, with episodes streaming on Disney+ and Hulu. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Michel Ghanem (he/him) is a freelance TV critic and writer. He is also known as @tvscholar on Instagram.
TOPICS: A Small Light, Disney+, National Geographic, Anne Frank, Bel Powley, Joe Cole