More than a history lesson, ‘A Small Light’ is a cautionary tale, says star Bel Powley

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Bel Powley is photographed on a balcony with the New York City skyline in the background.
“It’s not something you’d expect from a normal 20-something directionless party girl,” Bel Powley says of her “A Small Light” character, Miep Gies, who helped hide Anne Frank and her family from the Nazis in the 1940s.
(Lila Barth / For The Times)

Anne Frank’s diary would have almost certainly been lost to the ages had it not been for a gutsy secretary-turned-Dutch-resistance activist named Miep Gies. First, she acquired food in scarcity-ravaged Amsterdam and fed the Frank family for nearly three years while they hid from Nazis in a secret office annex. Then, after the family was discovered and deported, Gies recovered Anne’s journal from the family’s ransacked quarters. Published in 1952, the diary sold 30 million copies in 70 languages and became a foundational Holocaust-era text.

In Nat Geo’s eight-episode series “A Small Light” (from “Grey’s Anatomy” showrunners Joan Rater and Tony Phelan), British actress Bel Powley portrays Gies with urgent intensity, showing her shepherding Jewish girls past Nazi checkpoints and marching into Nazi headquarters with a purse full of cash trying to bribe an officer to “lose” transfer papers authorizing the Frank family’s deportation.


Best known in the U.S. for “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” Powley previously shied away from period pieces but during a Zoom call from Toronto, she talked about her desire to bring this “everyday hero” to life for contemporary audiences.

In the NatGeo drama, Powley stars as Miep Gies, one of the people who helped eight Jews, including Anne Frank, hide in a secret annex in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam.

May 22, 2023

Before “A Small Light” came your way, did you know anything about Miep Gies?

No! When my agent called me — on Holocaust Memorial Day — and said you’ve been offered this job, I didn’t even know who Miep Gies was, so I ran off and learned about her and thought it sounded really interesting.

Then you got the script — what was your gut reaction?

Reading the first 10 pages of the pilot, I was already thinking what would I do in this situation? I could just see myself in this young woman. I was also excited because I’m Jewish. This is a part of history we need to keep retelling, but we need to do it in a way that makes people listen and focus and wake up. Rather than putting people on pedestals and watching some sepia-toned Holocaust drama from the olden days, we want people to connect to this story now.


Two young women in 1940s clothing walk their bicycles in a scene from "A Small Light"
Ashley Brooke, left, plays Anne Frank’s sister, Margot, with Bel Powley as Miep Gies in Nat Geo’s “A Small Light.”
(Dusan Martincek / National Geographic for Disney)

Miep starts out as a slacker who sleeps until 2 in the afternoon because she’s been out all night drinking. Fast-forward to the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam starting in 1940, your character shows remarkable bravery.

It’s not something you’d expect from a normal 20-something directionless party girl, but you have to think about how this woman operated. She had an incredibly strong moral compass. Miep believed, like I believe, that we all have this sense of right and wrong inside of us. Miep acted on that without hesitation. I think it’s something we can learn from Miep: In your head, you know the right thing to do, but maybe you’re dillydallying, maybe you’re a bit scared. Miep just got on with it, even if she was scared.

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Or course you’re an actress playing a role on a movie set, but still, the sight of people in Nazi uniforms with their swastikas strolling around on the streets must have been chilling.

Listening to Nazi rhetoric all the time, seeing people dressed as Nazis — that was alarming. But after living in this world for five months, the truth is, you get used to it. By the end, I’d be chatting to people dressed as Nazis at the craft table, and it was less shocking than at the beginning. But. But. But. Having said that, specific scenes were very difficult. In Amsterdam, we filmed a scene where Jewish people are being dragged out of their houses and into trucks by Nazis. That was really hard to watch.


Bel Powley
(Lila Barth / For The Times)

“A Small Light” shot for five months on soundstages in Prague and on location in Amsterdam. Physically and emotionally, you must have been exhausted when the series wrapped.

I was really tired. When I think back to when I was working 15 hours a day for five months, I’m like, “How did I do that?” You don’t realize how much a human being has in the tank.

How did you feel when you came out of the other side of this 20-week immersion in the world of World War II-era terror?

Honestly, I had the best time making this show, and I know that sounds weird, because it’s such a heavy subject. But this was a character I related to, it’s a piece of history that means a lot to me and my family. And the showrunners kept reminding us that the people of Amsterdam were all trotting around telling each other, “We live in modern society — there’s no way that some nutter like Hitler’s going to come and take over our country.” That’s the whole point of making this show, rather than thinking, “Oh, this happened in the past and would never happen now.” Yes, the Holocaust happened in the 1940s, but right now we’re living through the world’s biggest refugee crisis; right now there’s a ground war in Ukraine; right now antisemitism is on the rise again. I think all these things should make people want to be a bit more like Miep.

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