A Small Light co-showrunner Joan Rater knows that Anne Frank’s story ends in heartbreaking, horrifying fashion. We all do. Frank’s diary, written while the teenage Jewish girl and her family hid from Nazis in World War II-era Amsterdam, comes to an abrupt close when their secret annex is raided. Anne, and most of her family, later died in concentration camps.
“When I read the diary, still to this day — Joan Rater, 60 years old — I get so caught up in Anne’s humanity and in her everyday stuff, her amazing voice and just in her that I find myself going, ‘Maybe this time, surely she’s not going to die?’” she says. “Because you can’t believe that somebody this wonderful won’t have a happy ending.”
So when it came time to make National Geographic’s limited series, Rater and fellow showrunner/series creator Tony Phelan, who is also her husband — knew two things. Yes, the show had to capture both the seriousness of the Holocaust and its effect on Frank’s family and friends — particularly Miep Gies, Otto Frank’s secretary and one of the key people who risked their own safety to hide the Franks. But Rater and Phelan also wanted to imbue the series with hope, love and joy, all of which the Franks, Gies and everyone involved in the hiding plan experienced even as the threat of discovery loomed.
“These were people who laughed and made jokes and got mad and had sex, you know what I’m saying?” Rater adds. “They didn’t know the end. The people who were hiding up in the annex didn’t know how this would end. They had hidden for two years, and they believed, once liberation happened, that they were going to make it.”
The series takes viewers inside those years but tells the story from a different perspective: That of Miep (played by The Morning Show’s Bel Powley), an opinionated young woman who quickly, enthusiastically agrees to her boss’ life-or-death request and then finds herself thrust into the resistance movement. With that framing, viewers are privy to life both inside and outside the annex where the Franks secreted themselves away with the van Pels and Pfeffer families.
“I wanted to make something that felt relatable, that wiped the cobwebs off the story,” says Rater, a veteran EP who, like Phelan, lists Grey’s Anatomy, Fire Country, Madam Secretary and Council of Dads on her resume. Ahead of A Small Light’s premiere, here are a few key things to know about the historical drama.
THE CAST | In addition to Powley, A Small Light’s cast includes Joe Cole (Gangs of London, Peaky Blinders) as Miep’s husband, Jan Gies; Liev Schreiber (Ray Donovan) as Otto Frank; Billie Boullet (The Worst Witch) as Anne Frank; Ashley Brooke (The Blacklist) as Margot Frank; and Amira Casar (Call Me By Your Name) as Edith Frank.
WHEN AND WHERE TO WATCH | The eight-episode series will have a two-episode premiere on Monday, May 1, at 9/8c on National Geographic, Nat Geo WILD and Lifetime simultaneously. Those episodes also will air on Freeform on Saturday, May 6, at 8 pm. Two new episodes will debut subsequent Mondays at 9 on National Geographic, and will be available to stream the following day on Disney+ and Hulu.
A FRESH TAKE | “People think they know this story, but they don’t know Miep’s story,” Rater says. “Because everything we know about Miep, we know from Anne. And Miep couldn’t tell Anne all the other stuff she was doing outside the annex.” Along those lines, viewers will get to know Powley’s character as a plucky young woman looking for work and love in late 1930s Amsterdam before they are introduced to Otto Frank and his family. “On the other side of that bookcase” — which concealed the entrance to the area often referred to as an annex or attic — “was a whole other coming-of-age story happening,” she adds.
IS IT ALL TRUE? | With a few slight alterations, yes, Rater says. “The events are true, the people they hid,” she explains, adding that the writers created the role of Tess, Miep’s best friend, to highlight how Miep’s inability to talk about her resistance work would effect her relationships with people she knew and loved. The EP also explains that information on Miep’s husband was a little harder to come by. “Jan was famously self-effacing, even more so than Miep, and after the war did not like to talk about it, did not like to put any attention on himself.” But, using what is known about Jan, Rater and Phelan did not have to construct much. “We know he was a social worker, and we know things that social workers were able to do if they were in the resistance,” she says, explaining how social workers had access to documents and identification papers and had a cover and means to deliver them. “We wanted to tell that story.”
LOVE AND WAR | The Franks went into hiding during Miep and Jan’s first year of marriage. “That, to me, was like holy cow!” Rater says. “Look, I’ve been newly married, and we wanted to explore what that would be like. Like, I imagine you still want to go out. You want to take a day off. You have disagreements with your husband about how you should do something, or whether you should do something, and we wanted to play those very real, almost mundane moments in a marriage with this backdrop of high stakes, life and death.” And while the newlyweds certainly encounter moments of static, their relationship provides a steadying, heartening feel in the show… particularly when things get bad all around them. “Miep and Jan were just very devoted to one another,” Rater adds. “I just could never imagine him being anything other than just completely in love with her, because she was so lovable.”
SPEAKING THE SAME LANGUAGE | Though A Small Light takes place in Amsterdam, and all of its characters are either Dutch or German, “we didn’t want accents to get in the way, ever,” Rater says. “We didn’t want you to think about them.” So the Dutch characters, like Miep, speak with a British accent, and the German characters, like Otto, speak with a German one. In addition, to hammer home the ugly, shocking nature of anti-Jewish sentiment leading up to the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam, Rater, Phelan & Co. made a bold choice. “Do we have those iconic yellow stars and certain signage in Dutch, or do we have it in English?” she says. “Because the yellow stars [which Jews were forced to wear] said ‘Jude.’ Well, to have it say ‘Jew’ suddenly, right away, it smacks you in the face and you can understand how the Jews felt… So that’s a way we used language to our benefit.”
Are you planning to watch A Small Light? Hit the comments and let us know!
I can’t wait to watch this.
This is probably a pointless comment to make but as an American Jew we have this bizarre relationship with whiteness where we enjoy a lot of the benefits but ultimately it’s actual European whites who decide if and when we’re white, and they can always take it away any time once again. Ethnically we’re Middle Eastern Levantines. I hope we can divest ourselves of whiteness as much as possible moving forward and stand shoulder to shoulder with people of color. We’ve always joined in civil rights movements but often from a superior position and I hope we can recognize that superiority is only born of the post-Holocaust moment and not something real. Furthermore more and more I see media holding up Jews as a shield for whiteness and laughing at Jewish “whiteness” when historically we’ve mostly been oppressed versus actual European “Christian” whites who’ve perpetrated endless atrocities on people of color and Jews as well.
DL, that angers me! You have no idea what my grandparents went through as Polish Catholics! There wars went on much longer. Please read some of their lives before you made such comments!
Keeping this horrendous piece of history in the eyes of the public is so
very very important, especially in light of the resurgence of antisemitism that is rearing its ugly head today.
We must never forget what happened and must never let it happen again.
For me as a German, this will always be the darkest spot on the history of my people.
When we heard of it at school, even later when we went to see a concentration camp, it was mostly numbers we heard that were so immense that we failed to comprehend them.
My ancestors planned, set up and executed the attempt to exterminate a whole people. Well organized, on an industrial scale. The people that killed during the day went home in the evening to hug their wives and kids, to pet their dogs and cats, only to go and kill again the next day. 6 million human beings.
This number is still too big to really understand, so it is important that stories like that of Anne Frank will be told again and again.
It’s is the single person, the family, that was destroyed that makes the horrors we Germans caused tangible. Something we can understand better. Something we need to understand.
I truly hope we won’t forget and, of course, never repeat it. But as Arthur Greenberg wrote, antisemitism is far from being dead, it is still alive also in Germany.
I wonder about the Germans today. It was so indoctrinated into their lives, how can they just shake the info from deep within their brains? On the same note, when people think about the atrocities from the Germans and Russians, how much affects people’s views? The world has changed and new generations should not have to pay for the crimes of others.
I am looking forward to this series. To see the Holocaust from Miep’s perspective opens another window into the Franks’ journey.
Wonderfully done. I enjoyed watching the first showing. Each character was full-bodied and drew you in to connect you. The writers and the actors did a wonderful job and I will continue watching the series.
Im loving it but what happened to it ;(