Irena’s Vow Showcases the Power of a Single Person

Couresy of TIFF

It is often said that truth is more unbelievable than fiction. If someone pitched a script where a nineteen-year-old girl decided on a whim to hide twelve Polish Jewish people in the cellar of a Nazi official’s home, they would be laughed out of the room. It’s too unbelievable that she could get away with something so dangerous, yet Irena’s Vow is the true story of Irena Gut, who did just that. Her tale is the basis for this movie, which allows us to see what the kindness and bravery of one person can achieve. The film is compelling, even if it does fall into some of the traps of the biopic genre.

Before World War II broke out, Irena (Sophie Nélisse) is training to be a nurse. As the Nazis invade Poland, she becomes a housekeeper for Nazi officer Eduard Rügemer (Dougray Scott) and works alongside twelve Jewish people who are assigned to the laundry department. When Irena learns that the Nazis are going to round up all the Jewish people in town, she hatches a plan to save the twelve Jews by hiding them in the cellar of Rügemer’s newly acquired country villa. Irena’s daring plan puts her life and the lives of the twelve Jewish people at risk, but she never hesitates in trying to keep them safe.

Irena serves two Nazi officers at a table
Courtesy of TIFF

Unlike a lot of recent biopics, Irena’s Vow doesn’t stray far from the true events of Gut’s life. If anything, the film omits some fascinating aspects of her story. Irena didn’t tell anyone what she did during the war until the 1970s, when she read a newspaper article about someone a Holocaust denier. She also saved more than the twelve people featured in the film and joined the Polish Partisans after she was no longer a housekeeper. Perhaps strangest of all, Irena was featured on an episode of the Jerry Springer Show where she was reunited with a child whose life she’d saved.

Irena’s Vow is likely the first time viewers will come into contact with the story of Irena Gut, and it’s devastating to know that her actions during the war are just as important today as they were eighty years ago. If anything, Irena’s Vow and Irena herself encourage people to perform the smallest acts of kindness in order to make some kind of progress in this weary world. Too often, people don’t practice what they preach and only extend kindness to strangers for social media content. It’s this message that comes across somewhat heavy-handedly in Irena’s Vow, but it’s hard to fault the film for that, given how splintered the world can seem.

Irena serves a drink to a Nazi officer
Courtesy of TIFF

The film acts as a showcase for Nélisse as the titular Irena. Most will recognize her from Showtime’s Yellowjackets, where shares the role of Shauna with Melanie Lynskey. Both works are stories of survival, and it’s clear that Nélisse feels comfortable in the uncomfortable. Irena exists in a near-constant state of fear, knowing that the consequences of her actions will be a swift death. She holds thirteen lives in her hands and she’s nineteen years old. It’s compelling to watch Nélisse balance the youthful, can-do attitude with the immensity of Irena’s situation. It’s a razor-wire line to walk, but Nélisse handles it expertly.

Without having known Irena Gut, it feels as though this film’s take on her life continues her legacy in a way that she would have wanted. Once Irena publicly spoke out about her actions during the war, she traveled to schools to talk to young kids about the power they have. Irena’s Vow will likely find its way into classrooms as a tool for teachers to provide a different view of the Holocaust. Irena’s Vow doesn’t take place at Auschwitz or a Jewish ghetto. The main setting of the film is a big, beautiful house in the countryside, but the threat of the Nazi regime still blankets every frame. Irena’s Vow can serve as a tool for education, and that means Irena’s mission can live on. Despite relying on the far-too-familiar beats of a biopic, Irena’s Vow tells the gripping story of a woman who made small, brave decisions in order to do what she believed was right.

Irena’s Vow will be playing nationwide on April 15th and 16th. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit Fathom Events.

Written by Tina Kakadelis

News Editor for Film Obsessive. Movie and pop culture writer. Seen a lot of movies, got a lot of opinions. Let's get Carey Mulligan her Oscar.

Leave a Reply

Film Obsessive welcomes your comments. All submissions are moderated. Replies including personal attacks, spam, and other offensive remarks will not be published. Email addresses will not be visible on published comments.

A man and two teens right in an off-road vehicle in Arcadian

Arcadian Is a Touching Coming-of-Age Survival Story

Headshot of Dillon Tucker

Writer/Director Dillon Tucker Talks Vulnerable Strength in Pure O