Isn’t it long past time that there was an honest discussion about why there are so many Holocaust films? Unquestionably some meet the challenge posed by the injunction “never forget,” but too many others exist because the market has proven that the Holocaust sells. The movies falling into this latter category trivialize as they sensationalize, fiddling on heart strings with a facile bow whose chords jump between lurid and saccharine. A subset within this group folds more troubling objectives into their cynical understanding of the market, using the Shoah to push agendas that have little to do with comprehending the unfathomable.
It’s a testament to the cravenness of the Holocaust industry that an undisguised piece of Serbian nationalist propaganda like Peter (Predrag) Antonijević’s “Dara of Jasenovac,” dressed up in concentration camp clothing, can find distribution outside its native land. Less surprising is that it’s been submitted for Oscar consideration.
Let’s start with facts: the Croatian fascist government during World War II, the Ustaše, were murderous thugs abetted by powerful members of the Catholic Church. Notorious for their wanton sadism, the Ustaše targeted Serbs as well as Jews and Roma, modeling themselves on their Nazi allies and propagating “us versus them” policies whose well-planted poisonous roots reemerged in full force with the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Equally incontestable, the Jasenovac complex was notorious among death camps for the blood-curdling cruelty of its commanders and their underlings. Approximately 80,000 inmates, mostly Serbs, were killed there between 1941 and 1945, and although the name holds a significant place in the Serbian psyche, it’s apparently never been the focus of a fiction film.
None of this is in dispute, and only someone devoid of ethics would argue that there were “good people” on both sides. The makers of “Dara of Jasenovac” emphasize that the screenplay comes from witness testimony, using that tried-and-true statement to shield themselves from criticism: It happened, therefore we are above reproach. The problems with the film however are twofold: Its unconcealed anti-Croatian, anti-Catholic nativism is baldly designed as incendiary fodder for current rifts between Serbia and its neighbors, while its delight in visualizing the sadism, contrasted with childhood innocence, pushes aside any reflection on the dangers of nationalism, murderous racism and genocide, replacing them with cheap sensation and sentiment.
The film opens with families marched to the cattle cars, and 10-year-old Dara Ilić (Biljana Čekić) asking her older brother Jovo (Marko Pipić) why their Croatian neighbors aren’t also being rounded up since they look the same. The able-bodied men were taken some time earlier, leaving the children’s mother Nada (Anja Stanić Ilić) alone to look after them and her toddler son Bude. At the swastika-bedecked station, Father Miroslav Filipović-Majstorović (Vuk Kostić) weeds out the ill and elderly, and as the train departs Dara witnesses the priest coolly gun down those left behind.
Shortly after the prisoners’ arrival at Jasenovac, camp commander Maks Luburić (Marko Janketić) organizes “entertainment” for a visiting Nazi officer: musical chairs, in which whoever doesn’t find a seat gets his throat slashed by camp official Ante Vrban (Igor Djordjević) using a horrific cuff-and-knife contraption documented at the camp. While Dara watches the blood-splatter, Maks’ half-sister Nada (Alisa Radaković) gets so sexually excited by the carnage that she and hubby Dinko Šakić (Petar Durdivić) get it on in a car, her climax synched with Ante’s stabbings. Subtlety is not the director’s forte.
The following day, Nada and Jovo are shot dead, but not before she impresses on Dara the need to stay strong and always look after her baby brother. Fortunately the girl is taken under wing by Jewish prisoner Blankica (Jelena Grujčić), who does her best to protect her and Bube from the guards and a hatchet-faced nun (Tatjana Kecman) whose cruelty matches that of the camp officials. Unbeknownst to anyone, the children’s father Mile (Zlatan Vidović) is in the neighboring affiliated death camp of Gradina, tasked together with a Jewish prisoner with disposing of dead bodies.
Were there no contemporary context to “Dara of Jasenovac,” it would be just another unmodulated Holocaust drama using violence in the same way as any number of serial killer movies. But background is inescapable, and in this case, Serbian nationalists’ use of Jasenovac as a rallying cry for Serb victimhood through the centuries turns the film into propaganda. Scholar Jovan Byford has cogently detailed how linking Serbian suffering to the Shoah has long been a ploy to garner international sympathy and legitimize territorial expansion together with racist policies, and that’s exactly what “Dara” plays into. In addition, situating the Ilić family’s home in Mirkovci is tossing red meat to the anti-Croatian brigades given that the town remains a bitter site of contention after the genocidal breakup of Yugoslavia. A Holocaust movie designed to stoke animosity against Germans today would be roundly condemned; to not recognize the same problems here is willful blindness.
In the 1990s through to the last decade, Antonijević has made some English-language films (“Savior,” “Little Murder”), and technically “Dara” is standard well-made fare, edited to milk the most out of drone shots of the camp and closeups of children’s faces. Including fantasy scenes of freshly killed men, women and kids arriving in a snowstorm to join other dead victims in a cattle car is apparently meant to provide a peace-inducing touch of magic surrealism, but it just feels corny.