One nightmare from World War II that rarely sees onscreen depiction is the Jasenovac concentration camp. It’s absence from the cinema screen, particularly since the dissolution of Yugoslavia, is striking, its own nightmare of omission. Jasenovac operated between 1941 and 1945, run by the Ustaše, the Croat nationalist government of the time. Serbs, Jews, Roma and positical dissidents were killed in this brutal camp that specialised in sadistic violence and torture of its prisoners. This little depicted corner of WWII history is nonetheless given the generic treatment in Dara of Jasenovac, Serbian filmmaker Predrag Antonijević’s rough and manipulative new film.
In the opening minutes, a familiar depiction of evil is presented. Trudging through marshland, a dozen people are led to an unknown fate. Farmers nearby whisper, “Do your work and keep quiet.” The sound of a baby’s cries float over the field, and soon a young Croat farmer is being handed the Serbian child for protection. Able bodied men are seperated from the women and children, put onto different trains and dehumanised. In a procedural way, Dara of Jasenovac moves through various elements of life in the camps, even depicting the collaboration of the Catholics, in the form of villainous nuns who help to administrate the camp.
Read More at VV — Know the Cast & Characters: ‘Thirteen Lives’
There are few actual characters in Dara of Jasenovac, and no real sense of identification beyond Biljana Čekić as Dara Ilić. The 10-year-old girl attempts to plot an escape after her mother and brother are killed, leaving her in charge of her baby brother. Čekić is stoic, but ultimately she is a limited child actor with an undeveloped character. Meanwhile, Dara’s father, Mile (Zlatan Vidović ), has been consigned to burying bodies in a ditch, scavenging them for items of value. When the man finds the bodies of family members, he attempts to make contact with Dara, in scenes which barely connect to each other beyond the sense of pushing the story towards one conclusion of another. Without a narrative anchor, the viewer is asked to follow their own point of view. That makes the assortment of violent images a mere mandala for one’s own feelings and context towards the events at hand.
The story is so broadly told and non-specific in its details, scenes and barely sketched-out characters that Antonijević fails to explain how this atrocity is different to other concentration camp stories. Give that this was a case of a people’s own government collaborating with the Nazis, and given that Dara of Jasenovac is the first Serbian film to cover the camps, the implicit didacticism would actually be more welcomed if it did its job and taught viewers something. In other words, if you’re going to start a film with a title card explaining the unique premise, one would expect the production itself to actually make such a case.
Read More at VV — Soundtracks of Television: ‘The Bear’
The officers eat candlelit meals in the prison yard, murdering Serbs between mouthfulls. Marko Janketić plays Vjekoslav Luburić, the central figure who runs the camps, and conveys a bumbling, civil servant’s nonchalance. It is difficult not to see shades of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom in these sequences. Where Pier Paolo Pasolini pushed the obscenity of fascism to levels that go beyond cinema, to something further back into the subconscious history of art and complicity in aesthetics of evil, Dara of Jasenovac merely rubs the audience’s noses in misery. Even moments of respite like a game of football are disrupted by more scenes of harsh violence. When blood sprays from a victim’s neck in slow motion, glistening on a beam of light that shines across an officer’s face, Antonijević seems to be revelling in the pain.
This wouldn’t necessarily be suspicious, but Dara of Jasenovac was funded by a Serbian government which has been criticised for its anti-Croat sentiment. Its method of production, and its romantic attachment to “the human story,” has sullied it as a partisan object. Even for an Anglo-American viewer who will receive fairly little coverage of Balkan politics in their daily scrolling, Dara of Jasenovac will feel faintly familiar to nationalist propaganda. The overbearing score illustrates each scene for maximum emotional imact. The actors are good looking and look clean. In the place of any serious consideration of nationalism or context around these unremembered lives, each close-up is deployed to associate the viewer with sentimental notions of good, evil and triumph. It’s a shame, as this chapter of history, and the people who died, deserves more than to be used as a stick to poke people through cheaply sentimentalized holocaust imagery and bloated scenes of pain.
Ben Flanagan (@manlikeflan) is a film critic and programmer based in London.