Risk Everything: A Study of Heroism in ‘A Small Light’

A unique new series offers a rare and uncompromising challenge to viewers to step up and stay true to what is right when life suddenly invites us to be great...

Bel Powley stars as Miep Gies, in 'A Small Light.'
Bel Powley stars as Miep Gies, in 'A Small Light.' (photo: Martin Mlaka / National Geographic for Disney)

In her book The Writing of Fiction, Edith Wharton notes that the difference between a short story and a novel lies in how long it takes to convince the reader that the protagonist has undergone a change. A hard-headed character like Scarlet O’Hara takes 700 pages of tragedy to figure out she’s supposed to be with Rhett. The young married couple in O’Henry’s short Gift of the Magi only need one heartrending Christmas to learn what true love is.

As a storytelling medium, television can be much better than movies at exploring the slow, and generally agonizing, way that human beings grow and change. Released in May 2023, A Small Light, a miniseries from National Geographic, takes an ordinary young woman through the stages of heroism and offers a rare and uncompromising challenge to viewers to step up and stay true to what is right when life suddenly invites us to be great.

A Small Light revisits one of World War II’s most poignant and well-known stories, namely, of Anne Frank and her family hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam, eventually being found, and then all but Anne’s father, Otto Frank, being sent to their deaths in concentration camps. The miniseries presumes that the viewer knows all about the horrors of the Holocaust and of Anne’s beautiful spirit, as revealed in her diaries. Those details serve as a background to an eight-episode character study of Miep Gies, the young woman who risked everything to keep her Jewish friends fed and cared for.

Based on Miep Gies’ description of herself in later years as merely “a small light,” the title of the series is ironic. It highlights Gies’ literal smallness (she was 4’11”) and her insignificance in the eyes of the world (she was basically a poor secretary) and yet points to the legacy of her choices — giving eight people two more years of life and preserving the greatest personal memoir of the horror of the Holocaust.

A Small Light tracks Miep Gies from her days as a party-going teenage girl to becoming a lion of courage. In Episode One, we see her nearly incapacitated by terror after her first intervention to get Margot Frank through a German checkpoint. And then at the end of the series in Episode 8, we see her storming the Nazi headquarters in Amsterdam, demanding the release of her friends.

How this young woman goes from silly youngster to grim and gutsy heroine is presented in the series as the confluence of escalating choices. Day by day, and week by week, the needs of her dependent friends grow, along with the dangers of the Nazi occupation, but Gies keeps doing what she perceives to be simply her duty and never retreats or gives up.

It is a mark of heroism that the hero feels like she had no choice, even as the majority of other people run and hide from danger. As Gies shrugged in an interview in later life, “It was a matter of course for me. I was able to help these people. We did our human duty helping those in need.”

Gies was born into a Catholic family in Austria, but she was always insistent that her motives in saving others from the Nazis were rooted in humanity not religious practice. She wrote in her memoir, “I could anticipate the sleepless nights and the remorse I would feel later in life if I did not assist those in trouble. Remorse is far worse than any death I could have faced.” Watching her character grow in A Small Light is very convicting and feels prophetic for this cultural moment when the whiff of persecution against the Church is in the air. As Gies wrote in her memoir, “My story is a story of very ordinary people during extraordinarily terrible times.”

This is unlike any movie or series about the Holocaust, in that the Nazis are barely ever seen. Seen through Gies’ perspective, there is an ever-present sense of danger, but no extended scenes of German soldiers beating Jews and women and children. This is fundamentally a relatable consideration of the cost of heroism. There are many wonderful scenes on this topic throughout the series. One in particular has Miep and her husband, Jan, snuggling in the bathtub — fully clothed and drinking beers — and asking each other whether they should be allowed that kind of happy moment.

The center of the production is the strong performance of British actress Bel Powley. She has a way of opening her eyes very wide, which makes her face a mesmerizing window to a simple but resolute soul. As the series moves Mrs. Gies through a journey of deeper awareness of the risks that are needed to save the Franks, Powley’s whole demeanor changes. We travel with her as she ages decades in just two years. As Gies noted frankly in her memoir about the two years of the story, “We could not have done more.”

Also wonderful in A Small Light is the performance of Joe Cole, who plays Jan. He too grows in the story, from being a painfully shy scholar reading a book during a party to becoming a champion of the resistance, blowing up Nazi buildings and risking his life to save Jewish babies. It’s a great touch that the book Jan is reading when viewers first meet him is Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

The production design of the series is small in scope but not in a way that detracts from the story. In fact, it complements the theme because these are basically insignificant people in the world’s eyes who are just trying to live their lives and run their shops — until the Nazis storm in and compel them to become heroes.

Much is accomplished through the musical score, in which the always-rising tension in the story is undergirded by mostly American pop tunes of the era. The carefree voices from faraway, safe America make a powerful contrast to the scenes of suffering Amsterdam. But the score also keeps present to us that these young people are having their youth stolen from them. They are supposed to be falling in and out of love and playing games and taking nature hikes. They’re not supposed to be suddenly people of the shadows, stealing ration cards, deceiving suspicious authorities, and blowing up buildings. But war does such things to young people.

A sub-theme in the miniseries is the whole question of family and particularly marriage in moments of stress and trial. One of the best lines in the piece is from Mrs. Frank, who confides to Miep, “Anne thinks our marriage is loveless. But I know his heart, and he knows mine. And then, he knows how I like to take my tea. And there’s something very romantic in that.”

In one memorable scene, Miep, terrified for her husband, tries to forbid his work in the resistance. He resists her pleas, much to her chagrin. But when he tries to get her to stop her work for the Franks in fear for her safety, she fights him back without irony just as vehemently. The message is clear: Heroes often have to walk alone, even without those they love the most.

The only misstep in the miniseries is an unnecessary subplot in which Miep’s half-brother is introduced as a homosexual and so associated to the Jews being persecuted. There is an extended sequence set in a gay bar that is supposed to be a headquarters of the resistance, all meant to establish that homosexuals can be just as courageous as heterosexuals. Director Tony Phelan admitted the entire subplot was made up, “just so the show could explore those issues.” I wish it wasn’t in the series, but it is just a small segment in eight hours of wonderful programming.

The best thing in A Small Light is the presentation of Miep Gies’ humility, even as she is resolutely doing greater things then most of us could ever imagine. The viewer keeps asking what is motivating her and also, “What would I do in the same situation?” Hopefully the series will lead many of us to ponder the words of Gies in her later life, “Even an ordinary secretary or a housewife or a teenager can, in their own way, turn on a small light in a dark room.”

A Small Light is a production of National Geographic and ABC Signature. It can be screened on Amazon Prime and Hulu. It is rated TV-14 for mild violence and suspense.