Monday, April 22, 2024

Toronto Review: “Irena’s Vow” Is a Sublime Real Life Holocaust Fable That Doesn’t Flinch from the Horrors of War


Thirteen years ago, “Irena’s Vow” had a short run on Broadway starring Tovah Feldshuh. She got good reviews but it didn’t quite work and closed after about 100 performances.

Now writer Dan Gordon has adapted the true life story of a Polish Catholic girl named Irena Gut for film and the material makes more sense. Louise Archambault deftly directs Sophie Nelisse (from Yellowjackets), Dougray Scott, and a cast of Polish actors. It’s a Canadian production shot in Poland and tells how Irena, as a young woman, saved a dozen Jews in Warsaw from being killed by the Nazis.

Gut died in 2003 but before that she was interviewed by Gordon extensively, Her own daughter, and a very much alive older man who is featured in the real life story as a baby, came to the screening in Toronto. “Irena’s Vow” was maybe my favorite film of the whole festival and is now looking for a distributor.

The story will remind you of Anne Frank’s. A young Irena began witnessing atrocities against the Poles– the Jews– by the invading Germans. She hid the dozen Jews– including several couples — in the basement of a mansion occupied by a ranking German official, Major Eduard Rugemeier. She was working in the house as a servant to save herself, eventually became his mistress as a trade off when he discovered what she was up to. When the Russians finally arrived in 1944, Irena went to a displaced persons camp while the major fled with the Germans.

Irena eventually wrote a memoir and was honored in Israel at Yad Vashem for her heroism in 1982. Thirty years later, in 2012, Rugemeier was also honored by Yad Vashem, although his protection of the Jews, I think, had more to do with wanting to keep Irena under his control.

Chemistry is everything in movies, and Archambault has made a seriously gripping film that seems almost like a light-hearted fable but never flinches from the horrors of the Holocaust. Archambault and Gordon introduce her to the Holocaust when a Nazi soldier brutally kills a baby outside a window. Irena is catalyzed from that moment on/

Nelisse is remarkably poised for a 23 year old, she’s an old soul who gets it. Glamorous in person, Nelisse — who has a flat Canadian accent — stuns because her Irena is so vibrantly drawn on screen. She’s a plain girl heroically keeping one step ahead of death — not for herself but for the people she’s decided to protect.

If the old Miramax were still around, Harvey Weinstein (now Public Enemy Number 1) would have turned “Irena’s Vow” into an awards season event. Maybe someone less odious can step up and do that now.

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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