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Paul Asay

Movie Review

Irena hustles into the kitchen, ready to clean the plates. The Nazis in the dining room above, after all, are not known for their patience. But kind Mr. Schultz encourages her to sit. Eat.

“Chew your food,” he tells her with a smile. “No one is chasing you.”

Mr. Shultz looks at the 21-year-old Polish woman and is reminded—in her intelligence and spark—of his own daughter. And though he rarely likes getting involved, he gives young Irena what little wisdom he can about how to survive in a Poland occupied by pitiless forces.

“You look down,” Schultz instructs her.

Not to the left or right, not up or straight. You look at your own two feet. You look, in other words, only to yourself.

“Worry about you,” he says. “Take care of you.”

Perhaps, if things had been different, Irena would’ve followed his advice. She would’ve fended for herself and let everyone else do the same.

But then she witnesses the Nazis commit an act of absolute brutality, killing a young Jewish mother and her baby before marching blithely on. She can’t look down after seeing this unspeakable horror. She can’t look away. She must act. In a country where blood is less precious than the cobblestones it covers, Irena decides that, if she can save a life, she will. Or, at least, risk her life trying.

Try she must—and soon.

Irena works for Maj. Eduard Rugemer, a munitions manufacturer for the Nazi war machine. She serves dinner, cleans the house and oversees 11 Jewish men and women, all of whom make uniforms for the front. But she learns that, soon, all the town’s Jews will be rounded up and shipped away. How can Irena possibly buck Nazi authority and keep those men and women safe?

But then she receives an unexpected promotion: Maj. Rugemer is moving up in the world. He’s been given a new, much larger, Polish villa, suitable for hosting the lavish dinner parties expected of him. Rugemer wants Irena to become his housekeeper and supervise the home’s renovations—from its splendid public rooms to its up-to-date kitchen to its cavernous cellar.

It’s a big house—far, far too big for one Nazi major and his Polish housekeeper. The cellar alone could house, oh, a dozen people, with plenty of room to spare.

And, quickly, Irena hatches a plan. What better place to hide people from the Nazis than literally in a Nazi’s own basement?

Positive Elements

The premise of Irena’s Vow sounds ludicrous. Hide 11 Jewish people literally right under the nose of a prominent Nazi officer? Give me a break. But here’s the thing: This Canadian-Polish movie is based on a true story. And that makes the heroism we see here all the more remarkable.

Irena herself is, of course, the moral star of the show. She quickly abandons the idea of keeping her head down and launches, full bore, into saving lives at grave risk to her own. As the Major’s new house is renovated, Irena deftly maneuvers the workers to keep the villa’s secret occupants hidden. When threats of discovery arise, she coolly responds to them—redirecting those would-be threats to safer areas of the house. And in a moment of terrible crisis, she shows a willingness to give her own life for the lives of those she’s sworn to protect.

But the folks in the basement are willing to make their own sacrifices, too. They’ll doing whatever they can to help Irena keep her job and, thus, keep them safe.

The first example we see of this is at a lavish dinner party. Maj. Rugemer is determined to bring in extra help, a military orderly, for Irena—both for the party and the foreseeable future. The house and its attendant parties are far, far too much work for one person, he tells her. But Irena—knowing that those extra hands would find her secret guests in short order—insists she can do it all herself. So the two of them agree to use an upcoming party as a testing ground. Sure enough, everything goes smoothly, in large part because the people downstairs become Irena’s hidden kitchen staff.

The major admits that Irena’s work was “efficient and satisfactory” and decides not to bring in an orderly. And from then on, whenever Rugemer heads to work, Irena’s guests head upstairs and help clean the house, wash dishes and prepare for the meals to come. One woman admits that she used to hate helping her mother with the housework; now that she lives in a cellar, she looks forward to drying dishes.

Though Schultz staunchly refuses to get too involved, he sometimes shows surprising kindness to Irena—and a willingness to help her guests that he won’t explicitly acknowledge.

Spiritual Elements

Irena is Catholic, and she’s attending Mass when Nazi soldiers force everyone outside and conscript them all into Germany’s war effort. Before the soldiers burst in, Irena watches a dove fly inside and past a window—a symbolic nod, it would seem, toward God’s love and the Holy Spirit’s presence in even Nazi-occupied Poland.

That faith remains a part of Irena’s identity throughout. Though we don’t see much overtly religious content, she does pray fervently in a moment of great crisis.

Obviously, we hear a great many references to “Jews,” though Nazis don’t seem to know or care much about their actual religion.

As Nazis sing secular Christmas carols during a drunken holiday party, the Jews in the cellar quietly observe Hanukkah down below—lighting a candle and quietly singing. Irena observes this lowkey celebration, and one of her guests quietly wishes the Catholic a “Merry Christmas.”

[Spoiler Warning] At one point, one of the Jewish women in the cellar conceives. The Jews have decided collectively that the baby needs to be aborted: It’s just too dangerous to bring an infant into the world when you’re living beneath a Nazi-occupied house. But Irena refuses to buy the ingredients needed for the abortion, initially citing her Catholic faith.

“This isn’t a matter of religion,” one tells her. “This is a matter of life and death.” Irena, after some thought, agrees: It is a matter of life and death: That’s why she won’t be a party to an abortion. She’s determined to protect not just the lives of the adults living in the cellar, but this new life, too. “I am not going to help Hitler get rid of another Jewish baby,” she says.

Sexual Content

During a party, Irena learns that a Nazi officer had his hands up a woman’s skirt, and the two went off to find some private time in the garden’s gazebo—very close to the Jews’ hiding place. Irena makes an excuse to go to the gazebo, where it’s insinuated that the woman is performing oral sex on the officer. (We don’t see anything.)

Other couples flirt and dance during the major’s parties, with Nazi men trying to steal kisses from their giggling dates.

Irena’s secret guests have a curtained-off area that the occupants have dubbed the “honeymoon suite.” With three married couples living in the cellar, it’s important that they occasionally have a bit of privacy. Sometimes, those couple hug and kiss lightly, but we see nothing more. Irena and one of her guests, disguised and out in public, pretend to kiss and flirt to get past a checkpoint. A Nazi officer seems to lightly flirt with Irena, and later makes reference to her beauty.

[Spoiler Warning] Eventually, Rugemer discovers that there are Jews living in his cellar—a massive issue, obviously, for someone in his position. But he tells Irena that he could keep her secret, “If I thought that you loved me. Wanted me.”

And with that, Irena becomes Rugemer’s mistress—a role she seems to see as a loathsome, but necessary, duty. The obviously smitten major kisses her both on the cheeks and lips (the latter of which she barely returns, as tears trickle down her face). The two talk in bed together, presumably after sex, in their nightwear (she in a modest nightgown, he in an undershirt). Rugemer seems oblivious to Irena’s rather cringing indifference, and he admits to Irena that he thanks God for “(Irena’s) Jews … because without them I would’ve never known this time with you.”

Rugemer’s and Irena’s relationship becomes widely known. One old woman in the market spits in Irena’s face and calls her a “whore.” Nazi wives and girlfriends gossip about her at dinner parties. When one notes that she’s still wearing her maid outfit during a dinner party and is serving guests hors d’oeuvres, another says, “She serves in the bedroom—why not here?” Rugemer admits that the relationship has become known in the higher echelons of Nazi operations: People are saying that he has “become enamored with a Polish girl and because of that my leadership has deteriorated,” he says.

Violent Content

Irena’s Vow is rated R primarily for what appears to be one shocking scene alluded to in the introduction.

Irena is pulled off the street and watches from a window as a Nazi officer (one in charge of eliminating Jews entirely from the town) takes a baby from its mother’s arms, throws it down on the pavement and then stomps on it. Then, he shoots the mother at point-blank range. While there’s little-to-no blood here, the scene is undeniably jarring.

Later, the same Nazi hangs a number of people who have been accused of sheltering Jews. Men, women and children (including a very small boy) are represented: They all stand on benches, which are quickly kicked away. The camera zooms in on parts of the resultant corpses—their feet, their hands, their abdomens—to emphasize both the victims’ humanity and their stillness in death.

An explosion rips through a city street, flinging rubble everywhere. A woman cowers before a man holding a pistol to her head. When Rogemer threatens to bring in an orderly to help Irena, she refuses—citing a terrible experience she had with a Soviet soldier some time before. (In real life, Irena Gut was raped, though the cinematic Irena doesn’t go into that sort of detail.)

When an SS officer wants to search Maj. Rugemer’s house for Jews (which Rugemer is unknowingly hiding), the major notes that one of them could be shot after the search: Rugemer if people are found, the SS officer if they’re not. And the major is quite confident that he won’t be the one executed.

The Gestapo apprehends a would-be blackmailer and jostles him around quite a bit. We later hear that the man was shot. A Nazi officer orders a building cleared of all inhabitants: He’s disappointed that he’s not hearing anyone scream, and he’s doubly frustrated when it appears the building is unoccupied.

While we don’t hear explicit references to concentration camps or the atrocities perpetrated there, we do hear Nazis discuss the elimination of the Jewish people, and we see plenty of folks rounded up and sent away.

Crude or Profane Language

One use of the word “h—”. Someone says “my God” in German. We also hear the word “whore.” An SS officer refers to Jewish people as “Jew pigs” at one point.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Alcohol flows freely at Maj. Rugemer’s parties. We see plenty of participants drinking and, often, a bit drunk. Rugemer himself engages in a tipsy conversation with another German officer.

Rugemer often unwinds with what appears to be a glass of whiskey: One night, Irena crunches up some pills and mixes it in his liquor to ensure he’ll sleep soundly as she sneaks her “guests” into his house.

Several characters, including Rugemer, smoke cigarettes.

Other Negative Elements

Irena must lie repeatedly to keep her threatened guests safe from discovery. A Nazi officer unpacks just how the regime dehumanizes Jewish people and conditions them for the horrors ahead: “We use them up until there’s nothing left,” he says.


The real Irena Gut kept her secret for decades. She never spoke about her experiences in the war. Never mentioned the people (ultimately 12 in all) she hid in her employer’s cellar. Not until she was confronted by a Holocaust denier, in 1975, did she begin speaking about her secret story.

Those experiences ultimately became a memoir (In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer), which ultimately led to a papal blessing (in 1995), being honored by the state of Israel as one of the Righteous Among Nations, a Broadway play and now this film.

If Irena Gut had had her way, we never would’ve heard about her heroism. And that would’ve been quite the loss.

The powerful, competent Irena’s Vow isn’t a Christian film, but it sprinkles some Christian elements throughout and stresses many Christian values. Its faith content feels wholly organic. And while the core story is as inspirational as it comes, the movie (reflecting Irena Gut’s real life) comes with some unexpected, and even difficult, complexities. The choices that Irena made to keep her laudable vow—the vow to save Jewish lives—are worth thinking and talking about.

This film’s R rating will surely give some would-be moviegoers pause, and it should. The scene that earned that restrictive rating is shocking and horrifying, even without blood and gore. But it, too, reflects Gut’s own real-world experiences. And for those who want to want to see the movie but skip that scene, it’s telegraphed well in advance. When you see the Nazi officer take the baby in his arms, it’s time to close your eyes.

That scene aside, this is a worthwhile movie—one that introduces us to a story we’ve never heard and a hero we’ve never heard of. It has one of the clearest messages against abortion I’ve seen in a secular film in years, and it manages to be gripping and harrowing without ever delving into too much problematic content.

Technically, this is one of the cleanest R-rated films you’ll likely find. And it’s one of those rare R-rated films that might actually be worth seeing.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.