When I previewed the upcoming film “Dara of Jasenovac” I noted that no faithful movie about the Holocaust is going to be an easy watch. But throughout the years these films have proven to be powerful reminders of humanity’s capacity for incomprehensible evil while also testifying to the indomitable resilience and courage of so many who suffered through the atrocities. And amazingly there are still powerful and moving true stories from the Holocaust yet to be told.
“Dara of Jasenovac” is a Serbian historical drama that tells a unique story from the Holocaust that’s not specifically about the Holocaust. Instead it’s concentrated on the genocide of Serbs in the Independent State of Croatia during the 1940s. Its main focus is on Jasenovac, a chain of the most notorious Croatian concentration camps which have been called by some historians “The Auschwitz of the Balkans”. They were the only concentration/extermination camps in all of Europe ran by non-Germans. Shockingly, their reputation for unspeakable brutally was such that even the Nazis were put off by their savagery.
Not to get too lost in the history, the Croatian death camps including Jasenovac were ran by emissaries of the ultra-fascist Ustase regime, allies to Nazi Germany in ideology but completely autonomous in how they ran their camps. They were not an offshoot of the Nazis doing the bidding of Adolf Hitler. They were conducting their own savage genocide and using the German death camps as their model. And while extinguishing ethnic Serbs was their main objective, the Ustase regime also contributed to the Nazi “Final Solution” by murdering an estimated 40,000 Jews in Jasenovac alone.
Until now there’s never been a feature film about this horrible blight on human history. “Dara of Jasenovac” comes from director Predrag Antonijević and screenwriter Nataša Drakulić and is the Serbian entry for Best International Film at the upcoming Oscars. The movie tells its harrowing story through the eyes of a 10-year-old girl named Dara played by the intensely expressive Biljana Čekić. The film opens with a group of Serbs including Dara, her mother Nada (Anja Stanić Ilić), older brother Jovo and baby brother Budo, being marched to a Ustase-controlled train station. Once they arrive they are quickly herded into boxcars and within minutes the train and its human cargo are on its way to Jasenovac.
Antonijević and Drakulić waste no time unveiling the horrors of Jasenovac and they don’t let the young girl’s perspective soften its edge. In fact there are times when by necessity the story pulls away from Dara to immerse us deeper in the camp’s inhumanity, to reveal the scope of its operation, and to emphasize the sadistic mindsets of those running it. On the surface the violence may seem overly brutish, but its actually rooted in true accounts. For example in the absence of more efficient means of extermination such as gas chambers, the soldiers of Jasenovac often used knives, mallets, and hammers. Antonijević doesn’t shy away from these harsh and uncomfortable realities.
At the same time this isn’t a movie solely absorbed in the darker side of human nature. The story always comes back to Dara and the different people she encounters, mostly women and children. While they all find themselves under the same dark cloud of hatred, bigotry and barbarism, we see glimmers of the human spirit as captives fight to survive while sacrificing everything for the ones they love. Dara is no different, determined to protect young Budo while holding out hope that her father Mile (Zlatan Vidović) may still be alive.
In addition to the story’s emotional resonance, “Dara of Jasenovac” immerses the audience through a richly detailed period setting highlighted by terrific costumes (Ivanka Krstovic) and production design (Goran Joksimovic). Cinematographer Milos Kodemo takes breaks from intimate close-ups and cramped spaces to acquaint us not only with the camp but the surrounding area. A long-time cameraman turned DP, Kodemo shoots with a mostly classical style but tosses in some stylish modern flourishes as well.
I fear it will be tempting for some to let politics sway their perception of “Dara of Jasenovac” considering the decades of tension and violence in the Balkans. But siding-up and treating the film as either justification or propaganda misses out on the stark warnings and profoundly human themes at its core. The movie doesn’t stick a forever label of Croatians nor does it excuse Serbian atrocities that would follow. It tells a potent story of love and hate while opening eyes to an ugly slice of history that (hopefully) we all can come together and condemn. “Dara of Jasenovac” opens February 5th.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS