NEW YORK (AP) — Liev Schreiber was visiting conflict-ravaged Ukraine when he got a script about real-life events some 80 years ago that felt strangely timely.
It was a story set during the 1942 occupation of the Netherlands by the Nazis and the way some Dutch risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust.
Celebrated diarist Anne Frank is in it, but she's almost peripheral. Instead, National Geographic's “A Small Light” focuses on a young, newly married woman who helped hide Frank and who provided food and other necessities at great risk. The series streams on Disney+ on May 1 and on Hulu the following day.
“The central storyline being about this young woman coming of age and dealing with her marriage gives you this incredibly intimate perspective on what it’s like to have one’s life interrupted by an invasion,” Schreiber said. “It felt so resonant to me.”
“A Small Light” stars Bel Powley as Miep Gies, a real-life heroine for protecting eight people in a secret annex in Amsterdam where Frank would write her famous diary. Schreiber plays Anne’s father, Otto Frank.
In addition to an important historical story, the series is also an examination of how far strangers can go to help someone in trouble. Gies, who wasn't Jewish, faced certain death if discovered.
“There’s no point in retelling a story about this part of history that everyone knows so well if we’re just going to be bashed over the head by the same historical facts we already know,” said Powley. “It needs to make people feel ‘What would I do and what should I do?’ Because the situation right now isn’t that different.”
Viewers first meet Gies as an aimless party girl who is transformed into a resistance fighter after the Nazis invade. She bluffs her way past army checkpoints and gathers scarce food for the hidden. She tells one of the people she saves: “If you need to cry, cry now.”
Gies was the secretary of Otto Frank, and her fierce altruistic side put her marriage in jeopardy. In one argument scene, she tells her husband: “It’s the right thing to do and I’ve agreed to do it, and I didn’t think I had to consult you before deciding to save a person’s life.”
“She was unwavering in her sense of what the right thing to do was,” said Powley. “She didn’t hesitate, and she also was incredibly confident and vivacious and vibrant and alive. I always imagined her with this huge smile on her face all of the time.”
Schreiber, who has spoken up about the Ukrainian invasion in part because he has grandparents from there, said Gies' bravery was underlined by the fact that she had no blood connection to the people she was helping.
“The reality of the situation is that we should all care about what’s happening in Eastern Europe or for that matter, what’s happening in Sudan or Turkey or whatever,” he said. “I felt like there’s something about Miep that really represents the best in each of us, those of us that say yes to each other. I felt like it was a great time to tell that story.”
After the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in July 1942, the Frank family went into hiding. The Van Pels family followed a week later. Four months later, they were joined by an eighth person: Fritz Pfeffer, a dentist and acquaintance of the Frank family. The group was discovered in 1944 and sent to the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp.
“A Small Light” shows the humanity of each member of the group, from Anne's rebelliousness to the needling of family members and the discomforts of life in hiding. There are fights and whining and stubbornness.
“Not many of us are familiar with rockets hitting our homes," said Schreiber. "But we can relate to a relationship that’s not going well. We can relate to an interrupted meal. We can relate to these things that were happening to these people’s lives as the rockets started to fall. And that brings us into the story in a unique way.”
The series comes during a new spasm of antisemitism in America, with the number of anti-Jewish incidents increasing by more than 35% in the past year, from 2,721 in 2021 to 3,697 in 2022.
Schreiber sees the numbers with alarm, having just completed a series about the Holocaust. “The patterns are the same — misinformation, disinformation, scapegoats,” he said. “Unfortunately, we are seeing them in the U.S. again.”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits
Mark Kennedy, The Associated Press