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Ryan Di CorpoApril 26, 2024
Sophie Nélisse as Irene Gut Opdyke, left, stars in a scene from the movie “Irena's Vow.” (OSV news photo/Quiver)Sophie Nélisse as Irene Gut Opdyke, left, stars in a scene from the movie “Irena's Vow.” (OSV news photo/Quiver)

Amid a startling global rise in antisemitism and a 24-hour news cycle graphically detailing the brutal violence suffocating Israel and Gaza, there have been at least four major films about the Holocaust or Nazism released this past year.

First, chronologically, was Steve McQueen’s four-hour opus “Occupied City,” a “monumental” documentary on the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam. It was followed by “The Zone of Interest,” a bracing masterwork from director Jonathan Glazer, who trained his lens on the minutiae of daily life in a Nazi family building a personal paradise outside the gates of Auschwitz. Drawing connections between then and now, Glazer created significant controversy with his Oscar acceptance speech, in which he accused Israel of “hijacking” the Holocaust, in part through its five-decade occupation of Palestinian territories. This year marked the U.S. premiere of the Anthony Hopkins vehicle “One Life,” a true account of how British stockbroker Sir Nicholas Winton organized the rescue of nearly 700 Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II. (Interestingly, all of the aforementioned directors are British.)

And now there is “Irena’s Vow,” the (once again) true story of a Catholic nurse turned forced servant to a Nazi official who used her position to shelter a dozen Jews in World War II-era Poland. A fascinating, important story ultimately in search of a better film, it weaves an inspiring albeit simplistic tale of heroism in the face of capital-E evil.

One of five Polish daughters born to a Catholic family in 1922, Irena Gut (later Irene Gut Opdyke) is conscripted to labor in the home of the Wehrmacht officer Major Eduard Rugemer. Advised by a confidant to be “like the three monkeys: Hear nothing, see nothing, speak nothing,” Irena ignores this advice and begins hiding Jewish laundry workers in the crawl space of the major’s cellar.

The turning point for Irena comes early in the film. From a window, she sees a Nazi soldier rip an infant out of its mother’s arms, throw the child to the ground and then shoot the mother in the head. Her secret sheltering of the Jewish workers is imperiled when Major Rugemer discovers her plot and gives Irena a sickening choice: Take me as your lover, or I will send your Jewish friends to the gas chambers.

In an act of true selflessness, Irena complies and successfully evacuates all 12 Jews into the woods by the film’s end. She began to speak about her extraordinary efforts after the war when confronted by the bunk claims of a Holocaust denier. Her memoirIn My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer chronicled the life-saving actions that saw her named Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust, in 1982.

The moral strength and courageousness of Irena’s story is undeniable, but engaging stories alone do not make great films. Marred by flat, uncomplicated images, a doe-eyed performance from the Canadian-born actress Sophie Nélisse, one-dimensional characters and a Sparknotes summary of the war, “Irena’s Vow” arrives as a staid drama that begins strong enough and then plods along in a somewhat perfunctory manner. It is clear that the artistic bonafides of the film itself are not quite as important as the good deeds of its protagonist.

But is that personal heroism really what the Holocaust was about? I am reminded of director Terry Gilliam’s critique of “Schindler’s List,” certainly the high water mark of Steven Spielberg’s career and one of the most affecting Holocaust dramas ever made, bolstered by technical brilliance and memorable performances. “The success of most films in Hollywood these days, I think, is down to the fact they’re comforting…they give you answers,” said Gilliam in an interview with Turner Classic Movies. “But that’s not what the Holocaust is about. It’s about the complete failure of civilization to allow six million people to die.”

Examining the Holocaust through stories of heroism or somehow inspiring denouements is certainly not unique to “Irena’s Vow.” The same can be said of “One Life” or that tearjerker finale of Robert Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful,” by most standards an excellent film (which I admittedly love). Perhaps the nauseating conclusion of “The Zone of Interest” or the unsettling, ambiguous ending of “Son of Saul,” which won Hungarian director László Nemes an Oscar in 2016, more accurately capture the depravity and inhumanity of the Holocaust.

“This is a different kind of film,” said screenwriter Dan Gordon in an interview with America. “People leave the theater feeling uplifted, feeling full of hope.” A retired captain of the Israeli Defense Forces who fought in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Mr. Gordon knew Irena in her later years and adapted her life story into a Broadway play in 2009. He connected the worst atrocity of the last century to the Hamas-led killing of some 1,200 Israeli civilians last October, saying he never imagined he would see “a time when genocidal mass murderers would be burning their way through Jewish villages.”

“I have never seen the kind of virulent Jew hatred that exists today,” he said.

It is true that Irena’s story and the stories of refugees from conflict-torn regions are distinguished by a terrible relevancy, as the naked barbarism of the Israel-Hamas War—which has seen the murder of over 1,000 Israelis and more than 34,000 Palestinians, nearly 40 percent of their dead being children—wears on. But the savagery of today does not save the film itself, and it makes narratives of hope feel alarmingly optimistic.

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