TIFF 2023 | Irena’s Vow (Louise Archambault, Canada/Poland) — Centrepiece

By Josh Lewis

Oskar Schindler looms large in the cinematic memory of Righteous Among the Nations recipients, an honorific title given to gentiles who performed extraordinarily risky acts to save Jews from death during the Holocaust. The aim of Irena’s Vow appears to be to elevate Irene Gut Opdyke’s name to that same status. Based on her resume it would be hard to make a dissenting case: Irena (Sophie Nélisse) was a Polish Catholic nurse who smuggled 12 Jews out of the Tarnopol Ghetto and managed to hide them in the cellar of Nazi Major Eduard Rügemer (Dougray Scott) while working as his housekeeper, eventually going as far as to become his mistress in order to ensure their secrecy and safe passage. It’s a harrowing true story that includes some of her account’s most upsetting details (witnessing a Jewish baby and its mother being brutally executed) and frankly unbelievable ones (that she somehow managed to oversee a successful pregnancy in that cellar during those months). But unfortunately, as drably directed by Louise Archambault and tritely written by Dan Gordon, Irena’s Vow feels strangely overdetermined to make its case. 

Adapting his own 2009 stage play, Gordon—who also wrote Norman Jewison’s The Hurricane (1999) and Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp (1994)—is no stranger to the conventions of the biopic, and his script shamelessly mines Irena’s life for easy, manipulative melodrama and suspense at almost every opportunity. Irena’s Vow indulges in an awkward feel-good attitude about the forming of a barely sketched makeshift family under such dire circumstances (including a sequence cross-cutting between Nazi officials celebrating Christmas in the Major’s home while beneath their feet Hannukah blessings are recited and candles lit), cute dramatic ironies (Rügemer creepily asking Irena if she is Cinderella with an army of mice in the cellar helping her do her housework), and mawkish speechifying: “This is not just about religion,” declares Irena at one point, openly reciting her titular vow to save lives after witnessing the Nazi crimes, and clarifying that it is not enough “to simply survive, you have to live!” Like much of the movie itself, it’s a perfectly reasonable, agreeable sentiment cleanly delivered and underlined with the complexity and subtlety of a motivational poster.