May 19, 2022

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

‘Dara of Jasenovac’ review: A Holocaust drama with an agenda

The veneer of historical reality is thin on the baldly nativist and manipulative Serbian World War II movie “Dara of Jasenovac,” a slickly made extermination camp drama about child peril that will test the patience of even the most rigorous students of cultural representations of genocide.

Fascist Croatia under the terror-driven Ustase government was indeed a nightmarish puppet regime of the Axis powers, and its massive Jasenovac complex of camps was one more hell on Earth for Jews. But what director Peter Antonijević’s epic of barbarism and sentimentality wants to drive home is that the annihilation of ethnic Serbs was the real focus, and that children got their own camp. If only it didn’t smack of scoring points in a longstanding regional feud. When there’s a scene in which the visiting Nazi bristles at the display of one-on-one sadism toward Serbian prisoners from his crisply uniformed Croatian hosts (which include incestuous brother and sister officers), you know you’re in agenda territory.

Our main viewpoint is that of watchful Serbian girl Dara (Biljana Čekić), a 10-year-old going on 40 who won’t allow herself to be separated from her toddler brother as she navigates cruel soldiers, mean nuns and mother figures both protective and suspicious. Caring for Dara and the brutalized prisoners is easy, because these are committed portrayals; trying to understand how any of it — filmed, curiously enough, with the photographic sweep of your run-of-the-mill studio epic — adds to our understanding of a wretched era is difficult. Especially off-putting is Antonijević’s use of a fantasy element for every death — characters emerging from blinding, snowy whiteness to enter a boxcar, where they sit with others. Then it gets used as a suspense device, and you want to throw something.

Perhaps most cynically, “Dara of Jasenovac” is Serbia’s entry for the Oscars this year. It’s one more regrettable sign that for some, the path to awards and respectability — and, seemingly, effective messaging against a neighbor — goes through the Holocaust.

‘Dara of Jasenovac’

In Serbian and Croatian with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

Playing: Available Feb. 5, Laemmle Virtual Cinema