Irena’s Vow: The Promise of Life

Directed by Louise Archambault, Irena’s Vow tells the amazing true story of Irena Gut Opdyke (Sophie Nelisse), a strong-willed, 19-year-old Polish woman who is employed by the Nazis during WWII. Promoted to housekeeper in the home of a highly respected Nazi officer, Irena is advised by the other staff to remain ‘seen and not heard’ for her own safety. However, when she discovers that the Jewish ghetto is about to be liquidated, she bravely chooses to shelter twelve Jews in the commandant’s basement. Faced with certain death should they (or she) be discovered, Irena remains determined to care for the disenfranchised as the Nazi’s swirl around them.

Sharply written by Dan Gordon, the screenplay for Irena’s Vow is surprisingly intimate for a film set during the Second World War. Whereas many other films of this nature feature terrifying scenes of bloody battles or concentration camps, much of the intensity lies within the walls of the commandant’s home. In the midst of world-changing circumstances, Gordon’s script focuses itself on this particular group of people and their daily struggle to persevere. In doing so, the story feels small, even though the stakes for its characters are massive.

Featuring some wonderful performances, the true gem of the film is Nelisse. As Irena, Nelisse brings a blend of insecurity and courage into every scene that makes her performance as Irena feel authentic. Irena is a woman whose life hangs in the balance with every decision she makes. As such, Nelisse’s performance requires her to play Irena with trepidation. After all, the riskier the decision, the more terrifying the consequences. But so too must she carry a sense of audacity as she makes each dangerous decision. By walking this line with caution, Nelisse brings her performance to life, making Irena a memorable figure.

What’s more, Irena’s experience is caught within the complexities of wartime endurance. For Irena, submission means survival. Trapped in the den of evil, Irena is forced to acquiesce to the whims of those of power or else lose her life in the process. Although she recognizes the toxicity around her, Irena must ‘keep looking at the floor’ and attempt to ignore the evils that she sees on a daily basis. (After all, she’s reminded that, sometimes, ‘survival means serving dessert’.) For her to speak her mind would mean certain death, not only for her but also for those under her care.

But the heart of this Vow lies Irena’s commitment to life. What matters most to Irena is ensuring that the Jewish families in their basement have a place of peace in a chaotic world. For her, every life has value. And she’s willing to put her own safety on the line in order to preserve them. 

Even so, Irena’s passion for these people leads her to dream more for them. She doesn’t only want them to survive. 

She wants them to thrive.

For Irena, surviving the darkest days of the Holocaust are vital. Yet, she understands that to truly live requires something more. Ultimately, they want to experience life in its fullest sense. They want to have families, homes and places to work. They want to live their lives in ways that fuel their souls. Irena understands this and she does everything possible to help this dream become reality.

Therein lies the beauty of the film itself. This isn’t merely the story of personal courage in a time of terror. Instead, it’s a cry for those who are suffering to live life to the fullest and implores the audience to take steps to help those in their sphere of influence as well.

Irena’s Vow is available in theatres on Friday, April 19th, 2024.

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