When Canadian director Louise Archambault shot her Holocaust drama Irena’s Vow — about a young woman’s heroism in hiding Polish Jews from Nazi occupiers – she faced present-day obstacles during production in Poland.
Archambault witnessed a makeshift refugee camp filled with Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion of their country next to her hotel in Warsaw, and had to navigate a security cordon as U.S. President Joe Biden stayed in that same hotel in March 2022 to mark the one-year anniversary of the war.
“I just wanted to go into my hotel room and I couldn’t get through because of so much security,” Archambault recalled after returning to her hotel after a morning of scouting new locations for Irena’s Vow, only to encounter vigilant Secret Service agents as she waved her room key card.
And visiting Warsaw’s main train station, which at the time was a major pit stop for millions of Ukrainian refugees, brought home the horrors of the Russian invasion. “It was mostly women and children, needing food and clothing and a place just to rest. I thought, that’s the war, and it’s happening next to my hotel. I’m going to sleep in a bed in a hotel room and they don’t have any homes and maybe they lost someone, or their husband is at war,” she recalled.
All of which underlined for Archambault the courage of her film’s heroine, Irena Gut, a Polish nurse played by Sophie Nelisse who sheltered a dozen Jewish men and women from persecution and murder under the nose of a Nazi commandant (Dougray Scott) while running his home as a housekeeper and then being forced to become his mistress.
“I’m going to possibly save some Jews. Maybe I’m going to die, I don’t care, I have to do something, otherwise I feel helpless,” the director said of Gut’s real-life motivation. Resolved to protect Polish factory workers under her supervision and facing certain death after imminent arrest, Gut chose the safest place she knew, the basement of the German commandant’s house in which she lived.
Over two years, she hid the Jews until the end of the German occupation, concealing them amid Nazi parties in the home, a blackmail scheme that led to Irena’s romantic involvement, and even the birth of a child.
Besides being recognized by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel, Gut’s story was told as part of a 2009 Broadway stage play written by fellow Canadian Dan Gordon that inspired the movie adaptation which had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 10.
And for Archambault, the parallels between her Holocaust drama and the reality of far-right nationalism elbowing its way back to the heart of Europe — as she witnessed outside her hotel in Warsaw — has added urgency to the upcoming release of Irena’s Vow after its TIFF debut.
“More than ever, this is a complicated world and very fragile as well. We should talk about horrific historical periods. We talk about Ukraine, but there’s so many wars we don’t talk about, in Africa as there’s probably less economic issues involved. But they’re still happening,” she told THR.
Archambault adds she strove for a character study of Irena Gut, with simple moral clarity and a straight-from-the-heart performance by Nelisse, a well-known child actor in French-speaking Quebec currently starring as Shauna in the Yellowjackets TV series.
“I knew Sophie, but when I spoke to her about the role and saw she looked like Irena, she didn’t talk about herself at all. She talked about Irena and war and people. She had so much of what I was looking for,” the director recalled.
Two early scenes to reflect the horror of the Germany occupation of Poland with which Irena’s Vow bristles – the brutal killing of a baby by a sadistic Nazi officer and the cruel hanging of two families in a town square – are captured by Archambault’s camera through close-ups of the shock and disbelief on Nelisse’s face as she plays Irena.
“When the camera was moving, I said to the operator, ‘Okay, go to Sophie, go, go.’ Because she was so surprised at seeing the hanging. It’s a film shoot, but you see men and women hanging there and it looked so real, and Sophie had real emotion, physical emotion, when she saw the hanging and we found our shot,” the director recalled of the town square hanging sequence.
Irena’s Vow is produced by Darius Films and K&K Film Selekt. The Poland-Canadian co-production also stars Andrezej Seweryn (Schindler’s List) and Maciek Nawrocki. Dan Gordon wrote the film’s screenplay.