Review: ‘Dara of Jasenovac,’ starring Biljana Čekić

February 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

Biljana Čekić in “Dara of Jasenovac” (Photo courtesy of 101 Studios)

“Dara of Jasenovac”

Directed by Predrag Antonijević

Serbian and Croatian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place Croatia during World War II, the dramatic film “Dara of Jasenovac” features an all-white cast of characters portraying concentration camp prisoners and their oppressors.

Culture Clash: Ethnic Serbs, Jews and Roma people were imprisoned, tortured and killed by Croatians who were sympathetic to Nazi beliefs.

Culture Audience: “Dara of Jasenovac” will appeal primarily to people interested in a dramatic portrayal about the dark side of Croatian history, and viewers should expect to see many depressing and violent scenes.

Marko Pipić, Anja Stanić and Igor Djordjević in “Dara of Jasenovac” (Photo courtesy of 101 Studios)

Just say the words “concentration camp movie,” and you can figure out what’s in the film, so sensitive viewers should be warned. The dramatic film “Dara of Jasenovac” is well-acted and thoughtfully constructed, but the movie’s disturbing onslaught of violence (including heartbreaking depictions of children being murdered) will make this film very difficult to watch for many people. The movie has fictional characters but is inspired by real-life experiences of ethnic Serbs, Jews and Roma people who were imprisoned in Croatian concentration camps built by Croatia’s then-fascist Ustase government during the 1940s/World War II era. The most notorious Croatian concentration camp was called Jasenovac.

Directed by Predrag Antonijević and written by Natasa Drakulić, “Dara of Jasenovac” tells the story of a 10-year-old Serbian girl named Dara Ilić (played by Biljana Čekić) and her family’s tortuous saga of being separated and imprisoned in concentration camps in Croatia. Her father Mile Ilić (played by Zlatan Vidović) has been sent to the Donja Gradina Concentration Camp. A few kilometers away at Jasenovac are the rest of his immediate family: Dara, who is very introverted; her 12-year-old brother Jovo (played by Marko Pipić); her 1-year-old brother Budo, nicknamed Bude (played by triplets Luka, Jakov and Simon Saranović); and their mother Nada (played by Anja Stanić Ilić), who faces constant threats to have any or all of her children taken away from her.

Most of the movie depicts the violence, starvation and other traumas that this family and other people experience in the concentration camps. Although the movie has Dara’s name in the title, the story is often seen from the perspective of the adult prisoners. Dara endures immense tragedies, but she’s probably one of the most stoic characters you’ll ever see in a concentration camp movie, because she rarely cries or screams in terror, even when certain people she’s close to are murdered in front of her.

The torturers and murderers in this story are men and women who share in the Nazi belief of exterminating those who are not Christian or those who are considered ethnically “inferior.” Their leader in this story is Vjekoslav “Maks” Luburić (played by Marko Janketić), who is feared the most by the prisoners. His underlings, who are also very cruel and sadistic, include his second-in-command Ljabo Miloš (played by Bogdan Bogdanović) and Maks’ sister Nada Sakić (played by Alisa Radaković). And the movie doesn’t gloss over factual history that some nuns and other members of the clergy were complicit in helping people who operated concentration camps.

Mile befriends another prisoner named Jaša (played by Bojan ZiroviIlić), whose wife, four sons and one daughter were all murdered when they stayed behind in Sarajevo. As prisoners on work duty, Mile and Jaša are often tasked with dumping bodies of concentration camp victims in ditches or throwing murdered corpses into a river. It results in some harrowing scenes that further intensify the atrocities of what people witnessed in real life.

Meanwhile, Mile’s wife Nada has no idea where he is and asks another Jasenovac prisoner named Anđelko (played by Marko Pavlovski) if he’s seen her husband. Anđelko tells her that Mile is probably at Grandina, where many of the men have been sent to separate them from their families. Nada and her children soon find out that trying to reunite with Mile has to wait when they’re all just trying to survive and not be separated themselves. There are several times in the story when all five of the Ilić family members face the possibility of being torn apart from each other for various reasons.

At Jasenovac, there are three female prisoners who make a big difference in helping Dara and her family overcome some obstacles. One of them is compassionate Vera Stanić (played by Sandra Ljubojević), who steps up in a pivotal moment and pretends to be Mile’s sister, so that the Ilić family won’t be separated. There’s also feisty Mileva Kovar (played by Nikolina Friganović), who is severely beaten for stealing corn for her children. And a kind Jewish woman named Blankica (played by Jelena Grujićić) is especially fond of Dara and gives her helpful tips on survival.

The many gruesome murder scenes in the film include a vile game of musical chairs that the soldiers force the male prisoners to play. The odd man out gets his throat slit and stabbed. And sometimes a prisoner will have his throat cut for random reasons. The scene ends with the soldiers beating the prisoners to death.

This movie is relentless in showing people getting shot, beaten, stabbed and murdered in other horrific ways. And there’s no sugarcoating of the violence that happens to the children. There’s even a scene of kids who are locked in a room while a soldier throws a grenade inside to kill them. This is a movie that shows the worst of humanity, made all the more horrifying because it re-enacts what happened in real life.

Every time a significant character dies in the movie, “Dara of Jasanovec” has a technique of depicting how that person has passed into the afterlife, by showing the character walking through a snowstorm and stepping into a gloomy train car. As the story goes on, the train car gets filled up with more and more people, while more snow starts to fall. The snow is a metaphor for the worsening storm of this sickening Holocaust.

“Dara of Jasenovac” gets all of the production elements right in accurately portraying the hell of concentration camps. The actors all give convincing performances. However, the character of Dara is a bit of an enigma throughout the entire story. Viewers do not get any sense of what her hopes and dreams were before this terrible tragedy. She’s brave but very quiet, and she often barely reacts when a lot of terrible things are happening around her. But it’s also a realistic portrayal of how someone can be when they’re in shock.

It isn’t until the last third of the film, when Dara is faced with being permanently separated from her younger brother Budo, that Dara shows a fiery will to fight for her family. However, viewers should not expect to see a cliché ending where the people who survive live happily ever after. “Dara of Jasenovac” is a haunting and impactful story of how the evils of concentration camps have left permanent damage to countless families and are a shameful part of human history.

101 Studios released “Dara of Jasenovac” in select U.S. cinemas on February 5, 2021. The movie was released in Serbia in 2020.

Review: ‘The Windermere Children,’ starring Thomas Kretschmann, Romola Garai, Tim McInnerny, Iain Glen, Tomasz Studzinski and Kacper Swietek

April 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

“The Windermere Children,” pictured from left to right: Anna Maciejewska, Tomasz Studzinski, Lukasz Zieba, Kuba Sprenger, Marek Wrobelewski, Jakub Jankiewicz, Pascal Fischer and Kacper Swietek (Photo courtesy of PBS)

“The Windermere Children”

Directed by Michael Samuels 

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1945, shortly near the end of World War II, the drama “The Windermere Children” is based on a true story of how a group of Jewish orphans who survived the Holocaust are brought to a group home in England to start new lives.

Culture Clash: The orphans experience difficult recoveries from their trauma, as well as anti-Semitism from some of the local residents.

Culture Audience: “The Windermere Children” will appeal mostly to people who are interested in stories about orphans or Holocaust survivors.

Thomas Kretschmann (standing) in “The Windermere Children” (Photo courtesy of PBS)

Most stories about Holocaust survivors tend to be about what their lives are like years after World War II ended. But the dramatic film “The Windermere Children” (which is inspired by true events) tells the story of what happened in August 1945, shortly near the official end of World War II, when a group of about 300 Jewish orphans were brought from continental Europe (many were from Poland) to an estate in England as refugees. Because almost all of the children did not have relatives to claim them, the orphans had to start new lives in England.

Almost all of the children survived concentration camps and are going through severe trauma. They arrive by bus to Calgarth Estate, which is located by Lake Windermere. The estate has been turned into a group home for the children, whose transition and rehabilitation will be aided by a group of counselors and volunteers. Leading this group is German psychologist Oscar Friedmann (played by Thomas Kretschmann), whose specialty is child psychology.

Other people who are part of the team are athletic coach Jock Lawrence (played by Ian Glen); art therapist Marie Paneth (Romola Garai); philanthropist Leonard Montefiore (Tim McInnerny); and married couple Georg Lauer (played by Philipp Christopher) and Edith Lauer (Anna Schumacher). Friedmann used to run an institution for troubled boys in Germany, but nothing quite prepares him for what he will experience with these orphans.

“The Windemere Children” (Michael Samuels and written by Simon Block) shows the somewhat chaotic and anxiety-filled arrival of the children by bus (one boy vomits on Mr. Montefiore as soon as he’s greeted by Montefiore), but then the teenagers who will be the main orphan characters in the story start to come into focus. (The ones who get the most screen time and backstories are the boys.)

Arek Hershlikovicz (played by Tomasz Studzinski) is a lanky, pimple-faced rebel. He shows an early romantic interest in Sala (played by Anna Maciejewska), who becomes his girlfriend. Icek “Ike” Alterman (played by Kuba Sprenger) is a bit of a charming flirt, and he finds out soon upon arriving that he’s attracted to an English girl. Schmuel “Sam” Laskier (played by Marek Wrobelewski) is a sorrowful loner. Ben Helfgott (played by Pascal Fischer) is a superb athlete, who quickly becomes a favorite of Coach Lawrence.

Chaim Olmer (played by Kacper Swietek) had assumed the identity of a boy named Ephraim Minsburg in order to survive, and the alias has stuck, but Chaim now wants to be known by his real name so that his sister can find him. Salek Falinower (played by Jakub Jankiewicz) is another loner, and he’s more likely than Sam to separate himself from the rest of the group. (He has to be gently coaxed by Friedmann to get out of the bus.) Salek is convinced that he will be reunited with his missing brother Chiel someday, even though everyone keeps telling him that there’s almost no chance that Chiel has survived.

Because most of the children have been through the trauma of concentration camps, their healing and rehabilitation are emotionally tough on them. The younger children who lived out on the streets are inseparable. During a walk in the woods, they are terrified by the presence of a small dog being walked by a local woman. The children run off and hide and have to be searched for by a counselor.

Another scene in the movie shows how something as simple as putting bread on the tables in the dining hall can spark a feeding frenzy, as the children grab the bread and run to their rooms to either eat the bread quickly or hide it from others. Eventually, the children learn that food at the orphanage is plentiful and they don’t have to act like paranoid scavengers and hoarders in order to get a meal.

Medical exams are also filled with anxiety and sometimes bad news. Many of the children are malnourished and recovering from physical abuse, such as beatings, whippings and burns. It’s not uncommon for them to have missing or decaying teeth. And the children also have to be de-loused. The clothes they arrived in are also burned, which is symbolic of them leaving their previous lives behind.

It’s while the children are being de-loused outdoors that they have an unpleasant encounter with some of the local residents. A group of boys who are in the same age group watch from afar and try to taunt them. Arek sees that the local boys’ reactions are out of fear and ignorance, so he approaches them, covered in de-lousing powder and extends his hand as if to give a handshake. One of the taunting boys tentatively takes Arek’s hand, but instead of shaking the hand, Arek pulls the terrified boy into the de-lousing shed. The other local boys run off and leave their bicycles behind, which some of the orphans gleefully steal.

Stealing becomes a habit for some of the orphans, and they are lectured not to do it by their elders at the orphanage. Meanwhile, the orphans are taught English and are encouraged by Ms. Paneth to paint their inner thoughts, without instruction rules or judgment on technique. It’s welcome therapy for many of the children, but one disturbing portrait by a child brings the art teacher to tears. And, as the movie shows, the children have constant nightmares and can be heard screaming and sobbing throughout the night.

During a trip to a local ice-cream parlor, the kids experience more anti-Semitism when the same group of boys who previously tried to taunt them show up at near the shop and give a Nazi salute, Friedmann than shames the boys by telling them that these children’s families were slaughtered. The boys sheepishly walk away, but the Jewish orphans see that anti-Semitism is everywhere, even in a country that fought against the Nazis in World War II.

Meanwhile, Coach Lawrence, a Scotsman who oversees the boys’ soccer playing, tries to toughen them up by telling them that people in the “real world” won’t care about them being Jewish refugees and they can’t use it as an excuse to get special treatment. Privately, Lawrence tells Friedmann that it might be time to start placing the kids into foster homes, in order to improve the strained relations between the locals and the refugees. Some of the locals are very open about their resentment that the estate land and taxpayer money are helping fund the refugees at the group home.

The most devastating part of the movie is when the Red Cross arrives to bring news about the orphans’ families. Most of the children had been holding out glimmers of hope that someone in their family would still be alive. But the news is as bad as expected. Arek is so emotionally wounded to find out that his entire family has been murdered the he verbally lashes out at Donna, and it puts an enormous strain on their relationship. There is a bright spot toward the end of the movie, which won’t be revealed in this review, but it’s enough to say that this happy moment is a testament to the power of hope.

The epilogue of the film takes a similar approach to what “Schindler’s List” did at the end: It shows some of the real-life  survivors returning to the place depicted in the movie, along with flashbacks to the actors who portrayed them in the movie. The real-life Windermere children who give comments at the end of the film are Arek Hersh (who changed his last name from Hershlikovicz), Chaim “Harry” Olmer, Ben Helfgott and Schmuel “Sam” Laskier and Icek “Ike” Alterman.

“The Windermere Children” is an emotionally powerful film (although by no means as harrowing and masterfully made as “Schindler’s List”) that tells an important part of the Holocaust refugee story. The film’s cast members give solid performances, but the movie is heavily slanted toward the male perspective of these children’s experiences, while the female perspective isn’t given as much importance. There’s a one-hour documentary called “The Windermere Children: In Their Own Words,” which is worth watching for a more balanced gender representation and for more testimonials from the survivors. The documentary is a great complement to this dramatic film’s version of their story.

PBS had the U.S. TV premiere of “The Windermere Children” on April 5, 2020. BBC Two had movie’s U.K. TV premiere on January 27, 2020.

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