The Courageous Heart of Irena Sandler (2009)

Reviewer: Rissi C.

War was not and is not a joyful time, no matter the circumstances, particularly during World War II for any Jewish person. This film is perhaps not the most lavish or stunningly filmed in the impressive library of war dramas available, but is impacting, nonetheless.


During a time when families were crammed together in small lodgings and children placed in danger simply because their family was of the Jewish faith, social worker Irena Sendler (Anna Paquin) is doing what she can by seeing that the children who have not yet lived in the ghetto are protected. At home, Irena’s mother (Marcia Gay Harden) has been ill with the signs of a possible stroke. Concerned for her welfare, Irena tries to spare her mother from the consequences of helping these children, but with the soldiers willing to shoot anyone harboring Jews, Irena occasionally brings children into their home for overnight stays until they can be taken to safer locations. On one of her frequent trips inside the Warsaw ghetto (to visit her Jewish friends and help those in need), a desperate plea from a young mother fixes a new plan in Irena’s mind. What if she could smuggle the children already inside the ghetto out to safety? Knowing the great risk and sacrifice it would mean, Irena and her small band of trusted friends conduct rescues by taking the routes Germans know nothing of or have since forgotten. Danger still swirls all around these brave Polish rescuers … and without knowing whom they can really trust, their work is potentially lethal.


I’d not heard of or about Irena Sendler prior to this production, but she was a real woman performing heroic acts during World War II. While her story may not directly be about American history in that she was Polish and rescued persecuted Jewish children, it was a part of a war which Americans fought to spare us from that kind of cruelty. Based in part on a novel written about Irena’s life, the story that unfolds over the two-hour time slot seemed to be a grim but realistic portrait of her life. Producer Brent Shields did an excellent job, as did everyone on the filmmaking crew. I appreciated the occasional bits of sassy humor when you lease expect it. The cast is phenomenal. Oscar nominee Anna Paquin was superb as the fearless but human Irena; she isn't afraid to put her own life on the line for the many innocent children but also discovers she can only do so much. The other cast members are additionally marvelous (look out for some familiar faces, costume drama fanatics). And the young stars that portrayed the children are also noteworthy for playing such a solemn, dramatic role so well.  


Many of the scenes between Irena and the children are touching and poignant; especially those between her and Karolyna, an aspiring ballerina. Irena is lovingly tender with each of these children, no matter the amount of time she is with them. With this being a production about war, there are some violent images. We often hear screaming along the streets in addition to gunfire, assuming someone has been shot. A woman is tortured by having her feet whipped raw (impact unseen), we see her face and hear the screams of pain; another woman is shown with a bloodied face. Woman are lined up and shot dead, another person is shot. Jews are talked about in distasteful ways; the Germans accuse them of having lice and spreading Typhoid. There are a few tense moments. This isn’t a happy, pleasant film. Imagine having to give up your child, to say goodbye to them in a world torn apart by war, knowing you may never see them again. Knowing if you don’t send them away, they may never have an opportunity to live their life. The scenes that show mothers weeping for their lost children are few but heartbreaking. Can you even fathom that? I cannot. In our lives today, we cannot imagine giving up a child simply because they may not live to see another day, all because of the faith they were born into.


I appreciated that filmmakers didn’t show (for the most part) what ultimately happened to the families of the children who had to remain behind as it would have made this story all the more dreadful and harsh. Factoring on the other side of these children’s lives are the families who sheltered, loved, and clothed them, only to know they must part with them at wars’ end, should their family have survived. If not for the historical aspects or just to see a remarkable true story told beautifully, this film paints astonishing truths to the lives of these brave people. It’s true that we may be going through some challenging and troubling times, but after watching this it made me realize that our lives are nothing like what these people had to go though just to survive. We have been privileged to choose our own religion without fear of being caught and made to do unthinkable things, imprisoned or worse. Those that have fought and still do have made us free, giving us choices. By the conclusion of this, it only reiterated these privileges and I felt truly thankful for those choices. Surprisingly enough, the ending is rather sweet, which is pleasant after such a tense, but worthy story. With a DVD release set for June, you can be sure this will be something worthy of watching again.

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