Irena’s Vow – Toronto 2023

Dougray Scott and Sophie Nélisse in Irena's Vow. Courtesy of TIFF.

Irena’s Vow brings the Broadway play of the same name and the story of Irena Gut Opdyke, a Righteous Among the Nations, to the big screen.

Antisemitism is at its worst levels in decades. All you need to do is take a look on social media, especially Twitter, where there are calls to ban the ADL. Worst of all is that the call is coming from the contemporary version of Henry Ford, Elon Musk. Irena Gut Opdyke (Sophie Nélisse) was silent for some 30 years about her experiences during the Holocaust until she came face to face with a Holocaust denier. This forced her to speak out about her experiences. It would lead to an increasing number of honors, including the aforementioned honor from Yad Vashem. But again, Holocaust denial is rampant on social media when we know for a fact that it happened.

Irena, a 19-year-old, was living in Poland when Nazi Germany invaded in 1939. We all know what the Nazis did to Jews but she was forced to work for the Nazis as soon as the war started. She starts out at Officer Kruger’s factory prior to working as a housekeeper for Major Rugemer (Dougray Scott). The butler, Schultz (Andrzej Seweryn), lets her know that she’ll be supervising nearly a dozen Jews. After witnessing tragic murders and overhearing Officer Rokita (Maciek Nawrocki), she decides to save the Jews. It helps when Rugemer moves into a large villa with hiding places. They would have been sent to the camps or killed if not for her hiding them in the cellar. Rugemer had no idea what was happening under his nose. When he finds out, he could have killed her but takes her as a mistress and looks the other way.

It just so happens that the villa, built by Jews, has a hiding space. When one knows Jewish history, building a place to hide within one’s home feels inevitable. Regardless, they still had to be careful about Gestapo discovering them. A produce vendor, Helen, asks Irena to hide her husband, Henry Weinbaum. Meanwhile, there’s a blackmailer that threatens the entire operation. Eventually, Rugemer has to move out and this means sending the Jews into the forest. After the war, the Soviets would arrest Irena for collaborating with the Nazis. The Weinbaums would come to her aid but falsifying her papers, which led to her being sent to a displaced persons camp, where she would meet her husband. The film ends with clips that show Irena meeting Ida and Lazar’s son along with reuniting with her sisters in the 1960s.

Comparisons to Schindler’s List are going to be inevitable. There is no reason for the comparisons but people will do just that. It’s just the way it is with films about the Shoah. Their experiences should be able to co-exist without feeling the need to compare. I only wish I knew about Irena far sooner than this year’s TIFF announcement. Dan Gordon’s Broadway play closed down almost as soon as it started but it’s hard paying close attention to Broadway when one does not live in New York. Because of this film, a wider audience will learn Irena’s story if they didn’t already watch a performance.

I do not know if the actors playing Jews in the film are Jewish. I’d like to assume they are but we are living in a world where filmmakers are not really casting Jewish roles with Jewish actors. What I do know is that Hebrew is not an easy language to pick up outside of the Jewish community. I mean, you have to be really good to both pick up the language and learn the tunes for the Chanukah blessings and Shalom Aleichem. But I digress.

But even as this film makes its premiere, Poland has undergone its own fair share of controversy regarding the Holocaust and Poland’s role in it. I personally cannot ignore it. Back in 2021, the Polish legislature passed a law that prevented future restitution to heirs of Jewish property seized by the Nazis. As you can imagine, this did not sit well. This is on top of the controversial Holocaust speech law signed in 2018, which was subsequently slightly walked back. Yad Vashem slammed the joint statement that followed. The Polish Film Institute co-financed the film as did The Ministry Of Culture And National Heritage of the Republic of Poland and one can only hope that they disagree with the law.

As much as I would like to see Jewish content that is not about the Shoah, these films still have to made to remind people of the worst genocide against the Jewish people. Meanwhile, fascism is rearing its ugly head again and we cannot be silent. If we don’t teach our history, we are doomed to repeat it. Irena’s Vow is a reminder of the horrors during the Holocaust and how there were brave non-Jews who protected Jews. I do wonder if the Broadway play would perform better in 2023 compared to the short run in 2009.

DIRECTOR: Louise Archambault
CAST: Sophie Nélisse, Dougray Scott, Andrzej Seweryn, Maciek Nawrocki, Sharon Azrieli

Irena’s Vow held its world premiere during the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival in the Centrepiece program. Grade: 4/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.