Extreme situations warp our experiences. When you are a prisoner in an extermination camp, there are no insignificant actions. Every action is a delicate existential decision to survive the day, survive the next minute; every step becomes monumental. Those actions become even more challenging when your family is in the same death camp as you. Dara of Jasenovac depicts the hardships faced by a young girl as she tries to survive an extermination camp while protecting her baby brother.
Predrag Antonijevic, working from a script by Natasa Drakulic, joins a long list of directors who have tried to capture the horror of the many death camps that dotted Europe during World War II. These extermination camps attempted a complete mass eradication of Jews, members of the LGBTQIA community, disabled individuals, Roma, Communists, and anyone opposed to fascism. Dara of Jasenovac focuses on the camps set up by Croatia’s Nazi collaborators in an attempt to erase Serbians and anti-fascists (Yugoslav Partisans).
The film’s opening sequence shows Croatian villagers watching as Serbians are forced to file out of the village and onto trains. The surreal vision of these people being marched along the streets strikes a Croatian peasant as deeply disturbing. She is told to mind her own business. This is a reminder that evil is perpetrated by both those that commit evil acts and those that do nothing. Human degradation knows no boundaries within the camps, inmates have to bury the dead, including their own family members, and mothers who desperately protest against separation from their children get shot by camp guards.
“…depicts the hardships faced by a young girl as she tries to survive an extermination camp…”
The movie is exquisitely shot. The light throughout is never garish, and it beautifully illuminates the actors inhabiting the bleak setting. As the young Dara, Biljana Cekic wears the horrors of the era on her melancholic face while also flashing steely expressions that convey her determination to help her baby brother survive the camp. The rest of the cast, including Zlatan Vidovic, Anja Stanic Ilic, Sandra Ljubojevic, among many others, effectively convey both the degradation of camp life and the will to live.
If there is a blemish to Dara of Jasenovac, it is the portrayal of the Croatian fascists who run the camps. Sure, historically speaking, fascists, especially those in charge of the death camps, were quite comfortable with violence; however, the fascists portrayed here are cartoonishly evil. Scenes in which fascists comfortably eat their dinners while killing prisoners and in which they make detainees play a sadistic game of musical chairs stretch the limits of credibility. While we must admit that the historical records document many sadistic acts on the part of camp overseers, these scenes may have been more believable if the fascists were not portrayed in such a one-dimensional reptilian manner.
Ultimately, Dara of Jasenovac succeeds when it focuses on small details. Day-to-day survival techniques like figuring out how to find a bowl for the meager food portions distributed at the camps, or depicting the re-education of Orthodox Serbian children to fall in line with the Catholic practices of Croats, make this a unique World War II story worth watching. Giving this story a specific geographical context helps viewers understand the full-blown animus between Serbs and Croats that lay subterranean in the years of the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia and would later explode in the 1990s.
Dara of Jasenovac serves as a compelling human drama, World War II education, an education in the Balkan conflicts of the last decade of the twentieth century, and a warning of the dangers that await those countries that do not take their simmering ethnic animosities seriously. It is made all the more compelling thanks to the cast and the little touches that show the hardships of life in a death camp.
"…succeeds when it focuses on small details..."