The Holocaust (also known as the Shoah), was the genocide (a term coined by Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1944) of European Jews during World War II. Between 1941 and 1945, Nazi Germany and its collaborators systematically murdered some six million Jews across German occupied Europe, around two thirds of Europe’s Jewish population. With the tragic events of the Holocaust such a big part of our history, there was bound to be many Hollywood films to tackle the subject matter. The list of films is longer than most, while the most famous of them is Steven Spielberg’s Oscar winner “Schindler’s List”.
The historical event itself and let alone a movie about the Holocaust, is never an easy thing to see or hear and the brutality of the Serbian language film, “Dara Of Jasenovac” is no exception. Based on the testimonies of real camp survivors, the film from filmmaker Predrag Antonijevic sheds a light on the war crimes and atrocities that took place at the Jasenovac concentration camp in the Independent State of Croatia.
The Jasenovac concentration camp was the only Fascist concentration camps during World War II that were not run by the Nazis themselves. They were established by the Roman Catholic Ustasha regime in Croatia, with the express purpose of exterminating not just Jews and Romani, but also the Serbian population, whose crime was being the wrong kind of Christian.
“Dara Of Jasenovac” was set to premiere in early 2020, commemorating 75 years since the escape of the remaining prisoners from the camp. But like most things around the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the premiere was postponed to October 2020 and again pushed to May 2021. The film was selected as an entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 93rd Academy Awards and was eligible for Best Picture, but it was unfairly overlooked at the Oscar ceremony. “Dara of Jasenovac” was also submitted for consideration at the Golden Globe Awards for Best Motion Picture Drama, while young actress Biljana Čekić (in her debut performance) was submitted for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama.
Director Predrag Antonijevic’s film begins during World War II, as leaders of the Ustase organization are in the middle of a campaign to rid Croatia of Serbians, Jews and the Romani people to clear the land. Dara (Biljana Cekic) is a 10 year-old Serbian girl who tries to keep close to her family as they’re all marched to the Jasenovac concentration camp for final sorting. During the punishing experience, Dara is separated from her family and left with her two year-old brother Budo, forcing Dara to find a way to provide food and comfort for her brother.
On her journey, Dara experiences kindness from others and witnesses the cruelty of Croatian camp officers, who live to murder innocents. Somewhere nearby, Dara’s father, Mile (Zlatan Vidovic), is ordered to deal with the removal and disposal of dead bodies, with his only hope to have the vague rumor that Dara’s still alive in Jasenovac, who has inspiring thoughts of escape.
Screenwriter Natasa Drakulic and director Predrag Antonijevic, aims to show that the Jasenovic camp was even more brutal than Auschwitz. The inmates were not only worked to death but killed without hesitation by the camps commanders, that included women who were no less sadistic than the men. They gleefully kill, because they share in the Nazi belief of exterminating those who are not Christian or those who are considered ethnically “inferior.”
Their leader is Vjekoslav “Maks” Luburić (played by Marko Janketić), who is feared the most by the prisoners. His underlings, who are also very cruel and sadistic, include his second-in-command Ljabo Miloš (played by Bogdan Bogdanović) and Maks’ sister Nada Sakić (played by Alisa Radaković). The movie is relentless in showing people getting shot, beaten, stabbed and murdered in other horrific ways. And be warned that there’s no sugarcoating of the violence that happens to the children of the camp. So much so that there is even a scene where a soldier pulls a pin and throws a grenade inside a room, where the kids from the camp are being held.
Or an extended sequence where during a game of musicals chairs in which the Serbian inmates are forced to participate in. The commandant would raise his hands to stop the music and the prisoner who is left without a chair is killed, as more of them are eliminated then the more chairs are taken away. It’s just a way to torture and torment the prisoners as, all the “winners” become losers anyway and are still gunned down regardless of who wins.
“Dara Of Jasenovac” asks a lot of it’s viewers, offering them extended scenes of misery, acts of inhumanity, with a quest to depict agony at it’s worst. This is a brutal movie that shows the worst of humanity, made all the more horrifying because it re-enacts what happened in real life. Even with it’s unfiltered acts of violence, the direction by Antonijević shows great sensitivity. He ensures that no death is merely a statistic and focuses not just on the savage acts themselves, but the reactions of the prisoners and particularly of our main character Dara.
Every time a significant character dies in the movie, Antonijević has a technique of depicting how that person has passed into the afterlife, by showing the character walking through a snowstorm and stepping into a gloomy train car. As the story goes on, the train car gets filled up with more and more people as more snow starts to fall. “Dara of Jasenovac” shows the human capacity for both sides of good and for evil. Antonijević gets all of the production elements right in accurately portraying the hell of concentration camps, while keeping the cinematography impressive and the performances exceptional.
“Dara Of Jasenovac” is one of the first films of the holocaust experience that I’ve seen depicting Croatia during a time of global unrest. It’s an impactful story of how the evils of concentration camps have left permanent damage to countless families and is no question a shameful part of our history. It maybe both cinematically brutal and haunting, but still remains one of the years best and most powerful films.
•The film is presented in Serbian and Croatian with English subtitles•
GRADE: ★★★★1/2☆ (4.5 out of 5)