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Making Art About Atrocity: Ongoing Thoughts

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Last year I posted here about Art Spiegelman’s Maus, in the context of its being banned by American school boards (a trend that has only continued and worsened since). I quoted an interview with Spiegelman in which he observed that many Americans seem to feel the need for a “friendly”, “safe” Holocaust, one with a happy ending, an easily-digested moral, and ideally, a white, gentile hero at its center. This dovetailed with thoughts I’ve been having for years about the challenge one faces when seeking to make art out of atrocity. How do you tell a traditional story about situations like the Holocaust or slavery, where the overwhelming majority of victims were lost with no possibility of escape? And on the other hand, how do you ignore the fact that even in these hopeless situations, there were incidents of tremendous bravery, and miraculous escapes that are almost too astonishing to be believed?

I found myself returning to these questions recently as I watched A Small Light, a limited series that aired on National Geographic (co-produced by Israeli company Keshet) about the life of Miep Gies, one of the people who concealed eight Jews, including Anne Frank, in a secret annex in an Amsterdam warehouse, and who found and preserved Anne’s diary after the annex was discovered and its inhabitants taken to the death camps. It’s a well made series that does several things extremely well, but it also runs up against some fundamental problems that come with storifying not only a Holocaust story, but this specific Holocaust story, and which it is only partly able to defuse.

A feeling of profound skepticism comes over you when you start watching A Small Light and are introduced to Miep (Bel Powley) in the early thirties as a flighty party girl, following her as she meets her future husband Jan (Joe Cole) and makes an indelible impression on her future boss Otto Frank (Liev Schreiber), who hires the young woman, it seems, more because she’s steamrolled him with her mile-a-minute mouth and indefatigable energy than any actual secretarial skills. Is this The Diary of Anne Frank, you wonder, or Fleabag? More importantly, is this going to be one of those stories where the significance of a horrible event—of the deaths of real people—is that it enables the self-actualization of a less-marginalized person?

Happily, A Small Light quickly settles into itself and makes clear what its project with Miep is. Beneath her flighty exterior, it reveals, is a former refugee who has deep empathy for people who have, like her, had to start their lives over, and a boundless desire to help others find safety the way she did. Miep needs to be energetic and stubborn and naively idealistic, the show argues, because that’s the sort of person who could keep eight people hidden and fed and marginally sane for years, while living under Nazi occupation herself.

One of the things A Small Light does extremely well is convey the bifurcated nature of life during wartime. How normality disappears at first slowly and then all at once—a dinner party at the Franks’ home in which the guests despondently but with some remove discuss whether Hitler will invade Holland smash-cuts to Nazi soldiers marching down Amsterdam’s streets. How even in the midst of such horrific events, normal life, with its wonders and pleasures, continues—a night out on the town, a romantic interlude between Miep and Jan, a brother and sister joking with each other hours after one of them was nearly arrested. And how some things are irrevocably changed, as when Miep realizes that one of her oldest friends is married to a Nazi collaborator who is profiting off the dispossession of Jews.

The show’s goal, it seems, is to stress the ordinariness of these people who have been caught in extraordinary times. You see this, in particular, in how it depicts the residents of the secret annex, who in other discussions tend to be flattened into what they represented to Anne, and are here allowed a fuller and more compelling humanity. Otto is the standout, a gruff but intelligent and fundamentally decent man. The other residents are sometimes querulous and demanding, sometimes surprisingly kind, interested in things like religion and politics and the progress of the war, and capable of regarding their own situation with some humor. Anne herself (Billie Boullet) is often depicted as a dramatic, romantic teenager, a nice contrast to the halo that many discussions tend to hang on her, without undercutting her intelligence and strength of character.

The show sticks surprisingly close to events described in the diary—even seemingly trivial incidents such as Miep giving Anne a pair of red suede pumps are taken from Anne’s own narrative. On the other hand, it sometimes feels as if A Small Light isn’t convinced that what the actual Miep and Jan Gies did—in addition to caring for the people in the secret annex, Jan was active with the Dutch resistance and passed fake documents and ration cards to them in his capacity as a social worker, and he and Miep hid a student who had run afoul of the Nazi party—was quite enough. It keeps piling challenges on their heads, furnishing them with more Jews to help hide, and in one particularly egregious instance, suggesting that Jan was involved with the planning of the 1943 bombing of the Amsterdam records office, and very nearly participated in the attack itself. This is, presumably, at least in part an artifact of that quintessential Peak TV problem, the limited series that should have been a movie—even at only eight episodes, one can sense A Small Light struggling to fill its running time. But it also feels rooted in the need to prove, beyond any possible shadow of doubt, these characters’ heroism.

The result is not without its merits—it makes the point that there were many other stories of resistance, heroism, and escape going on in WWII Amsterdam than just Anne Frank’s, and helps to convey a broader sense of what life under occupation was like. It allows us to see how much the task of concealing the annex was a communal one, dependent not just on the efforts of Miep, Jan, and the other Opekta employees, but on so many other people turning a blind eye or not asking any inconvenient questions. But the closer we get to the inevitable fate of the secret annex, the more it feels as if the show is trying to distract us from it. To tell yet another story of successful resistance before it gets to the tragedy that is the reason we know any of these people’s names.

I want to choose my words carefully here, because what the people who concealed the secret annex did was incredibly dangerous, and the efforts they undertook to keep their charges alive were truly heroic, and the discovery of the annex happened through no fault of their own. But with all those caveats in place, the fact remains that the story that A Small Light tells ends in failure and death. For all their courage and heroic efforts, Miep Gies and her compatriots ultimately were not able to keep their friends hidden and alive.

You can sense the show flailing as it tries to both recognize this fact, and come up with a traditionally dramatic, cathartic ending for its story, veering between a scene in which Miep realizes that she had tied her own identity with her ability to keep her friends hidden, to another of the helpers musing that the two years in which they cared for the hideaways are meaningful even despite their awful end. A particularly powerful moment comes when Miep and Jan, some time after the Nazi defeat, encounter a couple whom Jan had helped hide, who have survived and been reunited with their son. You can sense Miep’s mixed feelings at this encounter, her envy at the fact that “her” Jews did not get such a happy resolution to their story. Against that, however, you have the suggestion that the salvation of the diary makes up for the loss of its author, the act that justifies Miep’s fame and cements her heroism. Between these different attitudes, the show never quite manages to land on a single conclusion or tone.

It’s that last claim—which I think represents the mainstream view, and is arguably the reason that A Small Light even exists—that most rankles with me, and leaves me wondering whether a project like this one can ever really work. As important as it has been to promulgating the story of the Holocaust and to conveying to even young readers something of the reality of it, the diary of Anne Frank is not sufficient compensation for the life of Anne Frank. Or, for that matter, the life of Peter Van Pels or Fritz Pfeffer or any of the other people in the secret annex, or any of the people who died horrible deaths without first being immortalized by a young genius. I’m not sure there’s any way for fiction to square that truth with the demands of a conventional, heroic story.

A Small Light tries as hard as it can to wring a satisfying ending for its story, but in the end I think what it should have said was that sometimes you can do your very best, give your heart and soul (and even your life) to a cause and still not achieve it. I think it should have sat with that failure—and with the fact that the people it depicts were able to carry on with their lives in the wake of it—while still reminding us how important it is to try. For all the show’s achievements—and they are, despite my ambivalence towards the project as a whole, significant—I think its unwillingness to admit this makes it a fundamentally flawed effort.

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