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REVIEW: The Diary of Diana B. (Dnevnik Diane Budisavljević, 2019) November 28, 2019

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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World War Two ended almost three quarters of century ago and slowly but inevitably perishes from living memory. In Croatia, however, it is still very relevant subject, especially in realms of politics where differences in views on contemporary issues play second fiddle to the question which side someone’s ancestor fought for in global conflict. This could be explained, to a certain degree, with the fact that World War II was particularly destructive in small and relatively poor country like Croatia, causing more bloodbath and destruction than in any time before and afterwards. And, to make things even worse, most of that bloodbath and destruction was caused by Croatians themselves, resulting in one of the darkest and the most shameful chapter of national history. That war drew out the worst out of people, but it also drew out the best. One of the examples of latter is subject of The Diary of Diana B., 2019 biopic directed by Croatian filmmaker Dana Budisavljević.

The film’s protagonist is author’s distant relative Diana Budisavljević, woman often described as the Croatia’s closest equivalent to Oskar Schindler. She was actually an Austrian; in her youth she married Julije Budisavljević, Croatian Serb surgeon who would later become a member of city social elite in Zagreb in pre-WW2 years. In April 1941 city and the rest of Croatia was occupied by Nazi Germany and their Axis allies; they installed puppet regime of Independent State of Croatia, led by fascist Ustasha movement, whose platform called for elimination of all non-Croats, namely Serbs, Jews and Romani people. Those minorities became brutally persecuted, although Budisavljević, mostly thanks to saving some of future Ustasha leaders before the war, evaded persecution himself. His wife, however, was deeply disturbed over the fate of Serb women and children being put in concentration camps and decided to collect and deliver humanitarian aid. Her efforts received further urgency in June 1942 when German and Ustasha offensive against Partisans on Mount Kozara in today’s Bosnia resulted in large number of Serb children ending in facilities like the notorious Jasenovac Concentration Camp, where thousands quickly succumbed to neglect, starvation and disease. Budisavljević organised rescue in the form of mass adoption and foster care among Zagreb families, which would ultimately save thousands of lives; her personal connections among higher ranks of German military and Catholic Church made this operation possible and offered protection to her and her husband. In May 1945 victorious Partisans entered Zagreb but the new post-war Communist government failed to recognise Diana Budisavljević’s work and, until recently, her role in those events was virtually unknown.

For Dana Budisavljević, who made only documentaries until this point, The Diary of Diana B. is the first live action film and it shows. Obviously inspired by Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, it tries to pay not so subtle homage to this film with the use of black-and-white photography. There are, however, few similarities between two film, partly due to much lower budget for Budisavljević’s film, which was made in Croatian-Slovenian-Serbian co-production. Almost all live action scenes take place indoors – in Budisavljevićs’ luxurious villa or various offices – and consists of lenghthy discussions about protagonist’s work or political situation, which serves as an exposition for viewers not so familiar with the history of Yugoslavia in WW2. Those scenes are often poorly directed, overlong and uninspired despite some of the actors, like Alma Prica in title role, trying their best to bring some life in their characters.

The Diary of Diana B. works best in documentary scenes, in which the director can apply her rich past experience. This includes authentic documentary footage made in the camps, which is almost seamlessly fused with the rest of the film; those scenes, that feature starved and sick children, many of them actually dying in inhumane conditions are actually quite disturbing and this film shouldn’t be recommended to overly sensitive viewers. Equally powerful is the documentary footage made in present day when four of rescued children, now people at the twilight of their lives, recall their experiences, horrors they had witnessed, families and loved ones that they had lost, while one of them struggles with the fact that the loss of Diana Budisavljević’s records deprived him of his proper identity. Those segments of this film make live action scenes in this film unnecessary and create impression that Dana Budisavljević could have made much better film if she took inspiration from Shoah. Although deeply flawed, this film nevertheless serves its purpose by providing important history lesson, especially needed in these times when such lessons might get forgotten and the characters like Diana Budisavljević might be needed again.

RATING: 5/10