While Dara of Jasenovac, a Serbian movie about the Nazi puppet state of Croatia, has gotten a number of bad reviews, most notably from Variety, for being Serbian nationalist propaganda, it’s also film Americans should watch. Since “we” intervened in the Yugoslavian Civil War of the 1990s, and still maintain a gigantic military base in the newly independent state of Kosovo, supposedly to prevent genocide, we should probably learn something about the history of the region. If anybody wants to recommend a Croatian movie defending their collaboration with the Germans, I’ll watch that one too.
When the Germans conquered Yugoslavia in April of 1941, they set up an “independent” client state under the Ustaše, an ultranationalist organization founded by Ante Pavelić. The Nazi attitude towards various Slavic nationalities in Eastern Europe was actually a lot more subtle than they’re usually given credit for. In the long run, Hitler planned to repopulate all of Eastern Europe with Nordics and various other western Europeans, but in the short run he was very good at playing various types of Slavs off against one another. For the dominant Slavic nationalities, Russians, Czechs, Poles and Serbians, it was quick and immediate genocide. For the smaller and less well-known Slavic nationalities, Ukrainians, Slovaks, Croatians, Lithuanians and Latvians, the Germans presented themselves as “liberators,” and gave them a chance to establish their independence under the protection of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS.
In the opening of Dara of Jasenovac a group of Serbian men, women and children are being marched off to a concentration camp past a group of Croatian women women working in the fields. “Why aren’t they taking those women too,” a young girl, Dara, asks her older brother. “Because they’re Croatians and not Serbians,” he answers. “What’s the difference?” she asks. “They cross themselves differently from the way we do,” he says, the Serbians being Orthodox Christians and the Croatians Catholics. Aside from that there is no difference at all. One of the Serbian women catches the eye of one of the Croatian women, then quickly puts her newborn child down on the ground behind a thick row of hedges. The Croatian woman picks the child up and takes it home to raise it as her own. It’s important scene, not only because it makes it clear that the director isn’t condemning all Croatians, only the Ustaše, and because it provides a hint of the horror to come.
Dara of Jasenovac is at its strongest when it deals with the question of why so many Croatians were willing to collaborate with the Germans in a genocide against their fellow Slavs. At its best, Dara of Jasenovac reminds me of Passolini’s film Salo, a movie that so accurately captured the fascist mentality that Italian fascists assassinated Passolini in retaliation. The fascist torturers and murderers in Dara of Jasenovac aren’t fascists because they’re Croatians, any more than most Nazis were fascists because they were Germans, or most Ku Klux Klan members were fascists because they were Anglo Americans. There’s no essential fascist nationality. Rather, the Croatians who run the Jasenovac, the chain of death camps where Serbs, Jews and Roma were condemned to an almost certain death, are the kind of people you see in every country, petty little assholes who suddenly get power over their neighbors, upwardly mobile, aspirational dickheads the ruling class finds it convenient to elevate as long as they’re useful to the ruling class, the “ruling class” here being the Germans and the “working-class” being the Slavs.
Most of the Ustaše members in Dara of Jasenovac are based on eyewitness testimony and thus have historical antecedents. Miroslav Filipović, for example, was a real Croatian war criminal, and Catholic Priest, who was hanged in 1946 wearing wearing the robes of the Franciscan Order. Somehow I don’t think genocide was what St. Francis had in mind.
Filipović is a minor character in the film. The real monsters of Dara of Jasenovac, Vjekoslav Luburić, Ante Vrban, and Nada Šakić, a sexy young female guard played by Alisa Radaković, are low rent versions of The Duke, The Magistrate, The Bishop and The President from the above mentioned Salo. While a visiting German officer thinks of genocide as a necessary but thoroughly distasteful task to be carried out in the service of the Thousand Year Reich, the low rent Croatian torturers and murderers under his command positively love it. They don’t just herd their Serbian and Jewish prisoners into gas chambers. They play an elaborate game of “musical chairs” where Serbian men are made to run around a circle of chairs before one is pulled away. Whoever is left without a chair gets shot through the head. They eat, flirt, laugh. At one point, Nada Šakić gets so turned on by the carnage all around her she has to duck into a car with her boyfriend for a quick fuck. This isn’t necessarily the banality of evil. It’s the frat party of evil. Dara, by contrast, is the “virgin” to Nada Šakić’s “whore,” literally. Played by Biljana Cekic, and charged by her murdered parents to take care of her sick little brother, she’s filmed as a pre-adolescent Virgin Mary cradling a sick infant Jesus, an austere Christian witness to a vulgar, fascist orgy.
If the Croatians are portrayed as human trash utterly carried away with the fact that the Germans have suddenly given them a little power over their Serbian neighbors, the film’s Jews are portrayed as noble, not because Jews are essentially better than Croatian Catholics, but because they know there’s no chance of escape. Indeed, the visiting German officer seems most offended that the Croatians are wasting so much time killing Serbians when they should be killing Jews. People who know they’re going to die have the capability for heroism and self-sacrifice, even in the most impossible situation. Dara of Jasenovac isn’t a pleasant film to watch, and I fear many of the child actors might have been traumatized by the subject matter, but I do think it’s an important film about the Holocaust that deserves a larger audience.