Untold stories of queer resistance to Nazis take centre stage in Disney’s moving Anne Frank drama

Bel Powey stars as Miap Gies in A Small Light. (Disney+)

New Disney+ series A Small Light is an unconventional retelling of Anne Frank’s story that brings the LGBTQ+ anti-Nazi resistance movement front and centre.

Anne Frank is one of the most recognisable names from the Second World War. Her courageous story of hiding from Nazi persecution in Amsterdam has been committed to page and screen countless times over the decades. Now, Disney+ and National Geographic’s latest series A Small Light is bringing a fresh perspective to her story.

The eight-episode series focuses on the Frank family’s unexpected hero Miap Gies (Bel Powey) and her husband Jan (Joe Cole). Miap – who was father Otto Frank’s former secretary – agreed to hide the Jewish family, joined the Dutch resistance and protected countless lives from the genocidal Nazi regime.

Most notably, A Small Light focusses on an often-untold side of the war, highlighting the underground queer resistance burgeoning in Amsterdam’s notorious gay bar Café ‘t Mandje and the life of gay Dutch artist Willem Arondéus, who participated in the bombing of the Amsterdam public records office to hinder the Nazi German effort to identify Dutch Jews.

Show creators Tony Phelan, Joan Rater and Susanna Fogel explained how and why they wanted to include this vitally important LGBTQ+ history within the series in an interview with Digital Spy.

“You come upon a story like Café ‘t Mandje and Willem Arondéus, and the fact that the first gay bar in Europe was this hotbed of the resistance. In your research, you read that, and you’re like, ‘Well, we have to tell that story’,” Phelan explained.

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Lesbian, gay and trans people were heavily persecuted under the Holocaust, with thousands sent to concentration camps and countless more imprisoned or forced into hiding. For many in Europe, Café ‘t Mandje became one of the rare places queer people were able to gather.

Phelan continued: “You’ll see, when you get into episode five, that place becomes the breeding ground for this big action that they’re going to take against the Nazis.”

“I read this quote because Willem was arrested afterwards, and put to death by the Nazis, and he said to his lawyer, ‘Let it be known that homosexuals are not cowards.’ He said this in 1944, and those people were an integral part of that story.”

Willem’s story of unimaginable bravery organising against the Nazi’s is finally getting the recognition it deserves. In March, Stephen Fry released a new Channel 4 documentary Willem & Frieda – Defying Nazis about his and lesbian cellist Frieda Belinfante’s tireless activism.

Rater also reflected on the importance of showing the variety of people doing Nazi resistance work in Amsterdam. She said: “The idea of Café ‘t Mandje, where it was this homosexual bar, and in the basement they had guns. They were hiding people upstairs.

Willem Arondeus. (Atticus Film)
Willem Arondeus. (Atticus Film)

“When Nazis were in there, the owner of the bar would turn on the owl light to warn people not to come in because Nazis were in. So there were all these amazing things about this place that we wanted to talk about.”

Both Rater and Phelan agree that since historically Miep had five brothers, “statistically, one of them had to be gay” and it was through this avenue they were able to fold Miep and Jan’s story into the world of Amsterdam’s queer resistance.

“We wanted to tell this story of Willem Arondéus, and that action of burning the records office. We know that Jan and Miep didn’t actually go to the burning of the records office, but we put them adjacent to it.”

For Phelan, including the voices of LGBTQ+ people in this historical drama is particularly impactful given the current anti-LGBTQ+ climate in “certain parts” of the US.

“What strikes me personally is, in certain parts of the United States now, there is this violent, virulent anti-trans mania going on and I think there is a belief from some people that this is a new thing. That homosexuality is a new thing, that people being transgender is a new thing.

“One of our responsibilities as storytellers is to say: ‘This is not a new thing. This has always been there. It has always been a part of pretty much everyone’s family. It just wasn’t talked about as much’.”

A Small Light is now available to stream on Disney+.