“Irena’s Vow,” Heroism in the Face of Evil

“Irena’s Vow,” Heroism in the Face of Evil

(OSV News) — On the first day of filming for “Irena’s Vow” (Quiver), Sophie Nélisse had to witness a mass hanging.

The Canadian actor, 24, has been making movies since childhood. So the scripted summary executions by Nazis — meant to terrorize the population of occupied Poland during World War II — were all in a day’s work.

Yet evoking an atrocity was not the problem. Instead, it was the possibility of running afoul of Polish child-labor laws. “We had so many background actors. (But) a lot of the kids had to wrap up in the afternoon,” Nélisse told OSV News.

As a result, Nélisse’s close-ups didn’t involve watching the gallows, but rather, following a tennis ball that an assistant director was moving to direct her horrified gaze.

The movie is based on the real-life experiences of Catholic nurse Irene Gut Opdyke (1918-2003). Famed for her rescue of Jews, Opdyke was named Righteous Among the Nations by the Israeli Holocaust Commission. In 1995, she received a special blessing from St. John Paul II who also invited her to a personal audience.

The hanging is not the most uncomfortable moment in the R-rated film. It’s surpassed, in that regard, by a scene of infanticide that’s explicit enough to make many viewers cringe. A sadistic German officer grabs a newborn child from its mother, stomps the infant to death, then shoots the mother.

Grim fare indeed. Yet it was this incident that inspired Irene’s resistance, as the movie — directed by Louise Archambault and adapted from his play of the same name by screenwriter Dan Gordon — explains.

Unflinching depictions of history can be both troubling and complicated. But that was the point of Opdyke’s 1999 memoir “In My Hands,” which discussed her decisions.

Another challenging theme crops up in the plot when Irene is asked to perform an abortion. By now, she’s hiding a dozen Jews in the basement of a capacious villa requisitioned by Wehrmacht Major?Eduard Rügemer (Dougray Scott), for whom she works as a housekeeper.

When one of the women under Irene’s protection becomes pregnant, the mother-to-be asks her rescuer to terminate the child’s life. Irene refuses, not out of stated religious principles, but on more broadly humanitarian grounds.

Because of what she’s witnessed, Irene announces, “I refuse to participate in the death of another Jewish baby.” (Before the end credits, the real Irene is shown hugging the man she refused to abort.)

Remarkably, this is Nélisse’s second role as a young wartime hero. Her first was as Liesel in “The Book Thief” (2013). In that film, her fictional German character — a member of the female equivalent of the Hitler Youth, no less, who is shown singing anti-Semitic lyrics in a choral number — steals books to share with the Jews taking refuge in her basement.

Nélisse, currently one of the stars of “Yellowjackets,” a Showtime drama series set in the Canadian wilderness, insists this was never her career plan. Still, she enjoyed the evident parallels between the protagonists — in this world but not of it, and being caught up in a milieu of unspeakable evil, yet finding the inner courage to remain moral.

Both the fictional Liesel and the real Irene “put others’ needs in front of their own,” she says. (“Irena’s Vow”) “went beyond a Holocaust movie, I think. It helped me grow as a human being, and brought me so many values.”

Real heroes, she observed, “are often the most quiet ones,” and operate, as both characters did, “in the shadows.”

She’s quick to point out that, as a working actor, she seeks diversity in her roles. In addition to the next season of “Yellowjackets,” Nélisse has a horror movie coming up. Additionally, she’s looking for parts in comedies and romances and — like every young performer in the business — hopes to land a role somewhere in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Nélisse is not Catholic; neither is Opdyke’s daughter, Jeannie Smith, who identifies as a non-denominational Christian.

Smith vouched for her mother’s self-effacement about saving lives. Growing up in Orange County, California, “I didn’t know anything about that until that phone call (in 1976) when I was 14.”

It was a hostile call from an anti-Semite. Her mother — who had married William Opdyke, a United Nations employee, in 1956 — was asked “whether she thought the Holocaust was make-believe,” Smith told OSV News.

This event only spurred further activism and a campaign of public speaking — which, in turn, brought hostility from neo-Nazis in California. Smith remembers accompanying her mother to a talk at a Los Angeles high school in the late 1970s where there were swastikas painted on the sidewalk as well as threats saying “Jew-lover, stay home or else.”

But the students responded well to her mother’s honesty, Smith recalls, “one after another, they got back in line to get another hug and kiss.”

Her mother, Smith says, “taught me that a little can go a long way.”

Kurt Jensen is a guest reviewer for OSV News.