The Diary of Diana Budisavljević – Review

The best thing about The Diary of Diana Budisavljević (styled for international audiences without those confusing Slavic last names as “The Diary of Diana B.”) is that this film was made at all, considering all the various barriers to this story being told.

Its titular character, Diana Budisavljević (nee Obexer) has only recently become recognised as an unsung heroine of the very bloody WWII in Yugoslavia for saving more than 12,000 (mostly ethically Serb) children from Croatian Ustaša death camps between 1941 and 1945. She was born in Innsbruck and married Julije Budisavljević, an ethnic Serb physician and lecturer at Zagreb University. Both her Germanic heritage and access to high-class circles were useful for her achieving her noble goals by acting through Red Cross in fascist Ustaša Independent State of Croatia (aka NDH).

The fact that she belonged to pre-war bourgeoise and her necessary work with certain Nazi and Ustaša representatives to help the children,  as well as her Germanic heritage (most ethnic Germans were driven out of Yugoslavia after the war), made her story unpalatable in the post-WWII Yugoslavia, which also tried to heal the ethnic rifts between Serbs, Croats and other nations that the war created.

The story of her remarkable work only reached the wider public more in 2003, when her edited war-time journals were published in Croatia and since then she was honoured in various ways in Croatia, Serbia and her native Austria, although her story is still far from widely known.

This is in large part due to the revisionism and politicisation that the topic of NDH policy of ethnic cleansing provokes in Croatia and Serbia, which unfortunately also burdens this film, made by Dana Budisavljević (apparently distantly related to Diana’s husband).

The final result, although lauded by critics (it received the award for the best Croatian film at the country’s main Pula film festival in 2019) and remarkable on the basis of Diana’s story and the present political context is unfortunately very uneven and does not do justice to its heroine.

Dana Budisavljević decided to mix documentary footage from NDH-times and often poignant interviews with (now-elderly) children saved by Diana Budisavljević, with dramatisations of the parts of Diana’s life during the war, and this makes the film’s intent and scope unclear, as it shifts between wanting to tell the story the horrific experience of the NDH deathcamps, and a less ambitious (and less politically incendiary) story of a woman doing good in a criminal society, focusing “just” on what Diana wrote in her war-time diaries.

The documentary part which hints at the former intention, is its stronger suite, both technically and substantively which is unsurprising given that Dana Budisavljević is a documentarist after all. It is here that you really get a glimpse (but not context, and definitely the full story) of the racist terror of the Ustaša regime, whether from the very disturbing footage of emaciated children, or of Serb mothers in peasant dresses clutching their babies during their final moments together. The survivor interviews also shed some light on what the life was like in the camps, but avoid delving happened before and after in the survivor’s lives. There is a lot of focus on the bad conditions the children had to endure, but obvious, interesting question, most notably the ones about identity – the relationship between the survivor’s identity which led them to the camps, namely being (Christian Orthodox) Serbs, and the one which they had to adopt to get out of them, namely becoming (Catholic) Croats – are avoided.  

Nevertheless, the footage and the interviews make me happy that this film was made, and would probably be better on their own, however a pure documentary would not fulfil the other task of the movie, tell the story of Diana herself, as there is little footage of her and she was never interviewed on camera about her experiences.

This brings us to the dramatized part of the film, which is wrought with many problems trying to also make a somewhat decontextualized film about a single courageous woman.

In what is probably explained by the author’s decision to stay true to the journal, in the dramatized part, there is very little outside context given to Diana’s strange position in NDH society and no explanation of this fascist society itself, to the point that I think that a viewer with little knowledge of Yugoslav history would not really understand what was really going on in that period. Who are the Ustaše? On what grounds are they taking Jews and Serbs? Why are they building camps? Who are those people coming at the end? This problem is also confounded by the fact that wider context not provided even in the documentary part, which also focuses on individual stories.

What you do get is a series of vignettes, almost all in the bourgeois settings of Diana’s flat, NDH Ministry offices and hotels, where the characters provide exposition on what they are doing in simple terms, but there is only a general sense of foreboding, but not of terror.

There is only one scene that shows the brutality of a regime which killed over 400,000 people (including 90% of its Jewish population and almost all Roma), and even that is rather tame: two policemen appear, start searching through Diana’s flat, and throw a few things on the ground before the camera shies away to show anything unseemly or unsettling. Somewhat bizarrely, a more potent scene of “brutality” is depicted at the end, when Diana is deprived of the symbol her life’s work – her archive of saved children – at the hands of a now-Communist former-Ustaša apparatchik. That is the only time she looks truly angered by the situation (at other times she seems discontented in an upper class sort of way), and the dramatized part of the film ends on a tragic note, by longingly following her archive as it is driven away to obscurity.

Actually this scene, is indicative that the filmmakers focused too tightly on Diana’s (mostly) administrative struggles, rather than panning out to show the situation around her. Indeed, one can argue that even Diana would not think that the story of her saving camp children in NDH should revolve around her – that is precisely why she not only sought to help those kids and women, but actually tried to document their plights.

Given that there is almost no real drama, or any real insights about what it was like to be a Volksdeutshcher married to a rich second class citizen hell bent on defying a racist system, what is shown is almost reduced to a bland story of “every-woman” trying to change something in a creaking bureaucracy run by incompetent and uncaring apparatchiks.

As there is very little of interest that is actually shown, the viewer is forced to focus on what is only implied or not shown, to try and understand why this story is at all relevant. It is here that even more problems emerge.

One of the more jarring things is that Serbs and their “allies” in the film regularly avoid using the term “serb” euphemised as „orthodox“. This is a strange decision for many resons. Firstly, It is unlikely that Budisavljevićs and their friends referred to themselves that way. Secondly, it also that implies that the NDH pogroms were religious, rather than racial – after all, NDH was famously open to Muslims who considered themselves ethnically Croat. Thirdly, it is plainly strange to have a film about an ethnic cleansing which “euphemises” the ethnic identity of the victims and treats their common ethnic name as somewhat of an insult (the first time „Serb“ is uttered comes from the mouths of Ustašas in 36th minute, then it is mentioned in the context of Diana’s husband being marked as a Serb, and then it disappears – it is also almost entirely absent from the documentary part).

In its attempt to be a universal story of courage (the tag line is “True story about best people in the worst of times”) the whole film ends up very reluctant to speak about the role identities played in what was a deeply racist state (that something or someone is “Croatian” is only mentioned once in the context of the creation of the Croatian Orthodox Church, Diana’s Austrian heritage is implied but not elaborated). While this may be explained away by its a lofty ideal of „identities don’t matter, actions do“, sadly in WWII Croatia, they mattered to the point of life and death, and that is kind of the main driver of the story.

Given that there is no historical context provided, there is an implied similarity between the Ustašas and the Communists: they are both announced with a similar archival footage of cheering crowds in Zagreb, they both mistreat Diana, and as mentioned beforehand, one character is first shown working for the Ustašas, then the Communists. Papering over that one important substantive difference in the context of Diana’s work (that the ones did ship off children to death camps, the others didn’t have ethnically based death camps),  makes the film seem even more like a study of bourgeois virtue in pushing altruistic projects against regimes with “thugs”, rather than a story of a woman which sought to save children from a racist regime hellbent on ethnically cleansing them.  It is also strange, that the Nazis,  whose invasion and racism led to the whole tragedy in the first place, are shown as more sympathetic to Diana’s cause, than even the Croatian Catholic Church.

The gender subtext in the film is also a bit off. Men are either depicted as a bit craven (Diana’s husband included), or Ustaša/Nazi/Communist thugs. Fully grown men are never heroes (interesting twist given that it happens during a war) but they are also never “victims”: literally nobody in in the whole film wonders what happens to “orthodox”/Jewish/Roma men so victimhood is reserved for women and children only. (Spoiler alert: they were shot/tortured/worked to death, or took arms to fight the Ustašas in outside of administrative means).

In the very end, even the “victims” are made to matter a bit less, at least compared to Diana’s actions. The only context provided of her feat, given in the end credits, is the number of the children Diana saved, with little mention of those who perished in NDH’s camps.

Knowing the political situation and the discourse about NDH in Croatia, where (at least) one prominent presidential candidate is openly supportive of neo-fasicst revisionist theories about NDH death camps, it is understandable that certain topics needed to papered over, but it is sad that a film about such a majestic feat of bravery ended up so overly cautious.

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