Irena’s Vow

Irena's Vow

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Irena’s Vow, Sophie Nélisse’s role as Irena is subtle but powerful, all accomplished through her eyes, her very presence and the ease with which she can change her style and voice depending on the mood. 

Director Louise Archambault’s film tells the true story of Irena Gut Opdyke, a Catholic Pole who hid twelve Jews in a Nazi commandant’s house, where she lived and worked during World War II. With screenplay by Dan Gordon (The Hurricane), based on his stage play, Archambault helps us watch Irena s transition from a young nurse aged nineteen who was religious and full of beliefs to someone practical and resourceful. 

This innate ability to think on her feet is first seen when she goes back to their home town in Poland that has been taken by Nazis after a hospital bombing where she works only to find an SS officer waiting for her instead of her family. She is quick-witted here, as throughout the film, although this is underscored by deep empathy such that it drives her actions towards helping others rather than trying to keep herself alive only.

A young Melanie Lynskey plays Nélisse’s older self in Yellowjackets,” whose openness enables us to enter into this terrifying world gently with compassion. And it is that likability—coupled with being pretty and looking German—that allows Irena to quickly rise through the ranks during the war so that she ultimately runs Major Rugemer’s villa; he himself is a vain man who wants nothing more than using it as an avenue for throwing lavish parties. 

Beforehand though, she was in charge of tailoring many uniforms for Nazi officers along with their secretaries. ‘Tailors’ – all Jews – were brought in from different trades around Poland whom she befriended and shielded from harm. They stand up one at a time revealing themselves to be former lawyers, chemists and nurses to Irena during a scene that is a great microcosm of what Archambault does best in this quietly human world.

Once Irena learns about an impending liquidation of the Jewish ghetto, she makes a daring decision to hide them inside the enormous mansion belonging to her boss, Major Rugemer. The film gains its momentum from watching her work through every minor issue pertaining to accessibility, communication, food, and comfort. Archambault often zooms in on unexpected images such as Irena’s feet rushing back and forth between the kitchen and guests’ tables where they are eating or a Hanukkah candle being passed around by survivors who are Jews holding hands. 

“Irena’s Vow” also has some very powerful moments; after all, it is a Holocaust movie. One particularly heartbreaking scene involving the fate of a baby personifies one Nazi officer’s casual sadism who is played by Maciej Nawrocki in this impersonal role.Archambault frames it so that it isn’t too graphic but still shows how witnessing such brutality actually galvanizes Irena. Maxime Navert and Alexandra Stréliski have composed an elegantly suspenseful score which plays throughout the film highlighting its risk of exposure in such plush surroundings.

Irena’s Vow fails to show the complexities of her character, which is a pity considering the fact that she is such an interesting woman. Her bravery and honor are what Gordon’s script emphasizes about her; hence, Irena becomes braver and is ready to make tough decisions and sacrifices. As their relationship changes Nélisse’s scenes with Scott grow concurrently intense while Scott himself becomes more intriguing as the much older Major Rugemer honestly exposes his uncertainties. That was really good on his part because it allowed him to display more depth.

As time goes on, however, Irena’s saintliness becomes more apparent. She is kindhearted and hardworking in all times and in all cases. Nevertheless, we can’t turn away from this powerful story; besides, Nélisse is just too watchable for us not to be interested in her performance.

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