Dara of Jasenovac borders of propaganda, more concerned with stoking ongoing political turmoil than honoring the tragedy at its core.
Dara of Jasenovac, Serbia’s official submission to the 93rd Academy Awards, is perhaps one of the more obscure titles currently vying for the Best International Film Oscar, but it’s also one of the ones that best conforms to the category’s historic mold. Set during the height of World War II at the Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia, the film appears on the surface to be another Holocaust melodrama that has proven to be Oscar catnip over the years, especially in the newly renamed International Film category, where WWII films are a dime a dozen. But Dara of Jasenovac adds a slight wrinkle to the narrative formula, as it tackles ongoing tensions between Serbs and Croats that may be unfamiliar to audiences outside the Balkans.
As seen through the eyes of 10-year-old Dara, the wholesale slaughter of Serbs, Jews, and Roma at the hands of Croatian fascists is so horrific that it borders on exploitation. Director Predrag Antonijević’s lurid preoccupation with depicting gory death feels almost fetishistic, eschewing historical necessity for macabre fascination. Antonijević often lingers on slicing knives and impacting bullets so that arterial spray splatters across the screen like something out of a slasher flick. What sets apart Antonijević’s approach from, say, Spielberg’s in Schindler’s List or even Polanksi’s in The Pianist is that those filmmakers, touched as they were by the effects of the Holocaust, treated its violence with an objective eye that neither shied away from nor reveled in the horror. As a result, Dara of Jasenovac is often uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons, using the tragedy of the camp as an excuse to flame ongoing nationalist tensions between the Serbs and the Croats in a way that feels misguided at best, propagandistic at worst. That it is so handsomely mounted makes its point of view all the more problematic.
The cruelties of the Jasenovac camp are well documented, earning it the nickname the “Balkans’ Auschwitz,” but rather than paint what happened there as a warning against the deadly brew of nationalism, racism, and fascism that gave rise to it (very much relevant still relevant today), Antonijević instead exploits the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocents to score cheap political points. The central performance by young Biljana Čekić gives the film a strong human anchor, but a magical realist depiction of the afterlife feels superfluous, like a needlessly maudlin antidote to the film’s unrelenting crush of atrocity. By constantly reveling in the barbarism on display, Dara of Jasenovac misses an opportunity to reflect on what gave rise to such actions, and instead plunges full-bore into nationalist sentiment that, while certainly borne of real tragedy, tips its hand in its gleeful depiction of violence. Rather than using the opportunity to honor those lost to such dangerous jingoism, Dara is content to merely pander to current political turmoil.