World War II in Film: The Ninth Circle (1960)

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In 1960, the Yugoslavian film Deveti krug or The Ninth Circle was released on the Holocaust in Croatia during World War II. The film was directed by Slovenian-born France Stiglic. It was made in Croatia by Jadran Film based in Zagreb. The film starred Boris Dvornik as Ivo Vojnovic, Dusica Zegarac as Ruth Alakalaj, Desanka Loncar as Magda, and Dragan Milivojevic as Zvonko.

The film is on the Independent State of Croatia, the NDH, during World War II. The NDH existed from 1941 to 1945. The title of the film, Deveti krug, The Ninth Circle, refers to a Croatian Ustasha concentration camp known by that name. The allusion is to Dante’s Inferno from The Divine Comedy, consisting of Nine Circles of Hell. The Ninth Circle is Treachery. The camp is based and modeled on the real Jasenovac concentration camp complex but the word “Jasenovac” is not used.

The screenplay adaptation was written by France Stiglic and Vladimir Koch based on the original story by Zora Dirnbach.

The glaring and fatal flaw of the film is that it does not refer to Jasenovac or any of the other Croatian camps that made up the system. By using the vague and obtuse term “Deveti krug” the film engages in misdirection and obfuscation. By omitting the context, the film becomes too generalized and too generic to have any meaning. The concentration camp in the film becomes a generic concentration camp, one that could be based on Auschwitz, or any of the other German camps. Without the term “Jasenovac”, the film has no meaning either within the Yugoslav context or internationally.

There is not enough elucidation or background to explain the camp. The concentration camps in Croatia were unique and remarkable historically because they were set up by the Croatian government itself. They were not German, but Croatian concentration camps. The film does not explain this crucial fact. The camp guards are Croats and wear Croatian uniforms who speak Croatian. This is evidence that they are Croatian camps. But then the slogan at the camp is ambiguous. It could imply that the camp is Auschwitz or another German camp. A slogan on the entrance to the Croatian Ustasha concentration camp named The Ninth Circle, modeled on the Jasenovac camp system, is “Rad oslobadja” or “Work makes you free”. In German, it is translated as “Arbeit macht frei”. This was the slogan not only at Auschwitz, but also at Dachau, Gros-Rozen, Zahsenhauzen and Therezienstadt. The slogan at Jasenovac was “Rad. Red. Stega.” “Work. Order. Discipline.” There is no question that the camp guards are Croatian Ustasha. This is clearly a Croatian concentration or death camp that is depicted in the film.

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The plot focuses around Serbian-born Dusica Zegarac as Ruth Alkalaj, a Croatian Jew living in the Independent State of Croatia. Croatia has enacted racial laws based on the Nuremberg Race Laws in Germany.

The film opens with Ivo and Ruth playing a board game on the floor. Boris Dvornik is Ivo Vojnovic, a 19-year-old Roman Catholic Croat. His father is played by Branko Tatic. His mother is played by Ervina Dragman. Ruth Alkalaj is a 17-year-old Jewish Croat. Her father is played by Bozo Drnic. Her mother is played by Djurdjica Devic. Their families are in the room. A boy playing the game puts on his coat which has the yellow armband with the Star of David and the letter “Z”, the Croatian word for “Jew”.

The setting is Zagreb, the capital during World War II of the Nazi allied country of the Independent State of Croatia, which also consisted of Bosnia-Hercegovina. Adolf Hitler has created the NDH which was proclaimed on April 10, 1941. Ante Pavelic was installed by German forces as the new leader or Poglavnik.

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The Croatian Ustasha regime immediately promulgates anti-Jewish race laws modeled on the German Nuremberg Race Laws. Serbs and Roma also targeted for elimination by the new regime. The film does not explore this issue but focuses solely on the anti-Jewish legislation.

Croatian Jews become the targets for elimination. As the NDH regime cracks down on Jewish citizens, Ruth’s parents get arrested. Ruth would be arrested next. Ivo’s parents concoct a plan to save her. They convince Ivo to marry Ruth. The marriage would be bogus and temporary to prevent Ruth from being apprehended and sent to the camps.

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Ivo has a relationship with Magda, played by Serbian-born Desanka Beba Loncar. In one scene, they ride on a bicycle through the streets of Zagreb. Another concern is the stigma and embarrassment. At school, Ivo is ridiculed by fellow students for marrying in his teens.

In the next scene, Ruth is shown wearing the NDH yellow badge with a Star of David and the letter “Z”, Croatian for “Zidov” or “Jew”, as she walks with Ivo’s father. A child in the street throws her a ball. She is spotted by a Croatian Ustasha officer who notices the yellow badge. He gazes at her suspiciously.

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She sees Ustasha troops put a prisoner in a truck. She sees a poster that Ustasha forces have put up of a racist caricature of a Jewish man. It reads in Croatian: “Measures against Jews can never be too harsh. Jews are worthy to be eradicated before birth.” It is an “Oglas” or “Announcement”. Ruth is shocked. Behind her German military vehicles are shown being transported by rail. The NDH Operation Barbarossa poster for the Eastern Front can be seen on the kiosk: “United Europe Against the East”. The poster reads: “Rame uz rame”. “Shoulder to shoulder.” Croatia is shoulder to shoulder with Germany and Italy in the invasion of the Soviet Union.

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Ivo puts a wedding ring on Ruth’s finger as they are married at a Roman Catholic Cathedral. They celebrate at Ivo’s parents’ house by dancing. They are committed of going through the ruse.

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Ivo continues to see Magda. Ruth notices that Ivo goes to take Magda on a bike ride. She is distressed. Ruth realizes that the marriage is causing problems for Ivo and his relationship with Magda. She decides to run away. She runs through the streets of Zagreb, past the Oglas poster and the War Against the East poster. Ivo runs after her and desperately seeks to find her.

It is Ivo’s father who locates her and brings her back. Ivo walks home dejectedly but finds Ruth in bed. They re-establish their relationship. They are shown playing the board game. He clutches her hand to reassure her.

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As Ivo and Ruth walk through the streets of Zagreb the Ustasha officer recognizes her. He throws down the flowers she is carrying and forces her to clean his boots. He pulls the scarf from her neck and forces her to kneel down and wipe his black leather boots with it. Ivo notices what is going on. Ivo is able to intercede and to diffuse the situation because one of the Ustasha soldiers, Zvonko, played by Montenegrin actor Dragan Milivojevic, recognizes him and can vouch for him. They are allowed to walk away.

The experience bonds their relationship and they grow closer to each other. They both come to accept the necessity of continuing the relationship. But they also develop a close interpersonal bond.

Ivo witnesses armed Ustasha forces rounding up Jews as they lead them down stairs. They are wearing the yellow Zidov badge. Their IDs are checked. One of the Jews has a Croatian medal which the Ustasha soldier rips from his chest. They are hauled into trucks.

Ivo attends a rally where an Ustasha officer speaks to a crowd. The podium is draped with a Croatian flag. Zvonko and Ivo fight on the stairs. Zvonko pulls out a knife. They are pulled apart.

Ruth runs down the same stairs where the Jews were rounded up. She walks past the fountains. She throws the ball. There plaza is deserted. She goes on the swing. She plays hopscotch.

She suddenly notices a poster on the kiosk. “Oglas: Na smrt vjesanjem.” “Announcement: Hanged to Death.” She read the name: Alkalaj Daniela, Jew. She is devastated. She breaks down. She surrenders to two Ustasha policemen.

Ivo tells his parents that he is committed to look for her. He goes to a train with wagon cars. Behind the grate are prisoners, including children. The train moves on. He hangs on the sides of the train.

In the next scene he is in a swamp. He sees female prisoners digging.

He is getting closer to the concentration camp. He encounters an Ustasha in a horse drawn cart. His next stop is the camp.

He reached the entrance which has a slogan on top: “Rad Oslobadja”. “Work Makes You Free”. He meets Zvonko at the camp. There are armed guards. There is also an electrified barbed-wire fence. Zvonko takes him on a tour of the camp. They see female prisoners. There is a watchtower with a searchlight.

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A gas van enters the camp. A driver opens the back door of the van. The Croatian Ustasha camp guard induces children at the death camp to enter a gas van. Children are shown before being put in a gas van to be gassed to death. There is a skull and crossbones symbol on the bottom rear fender of the van. This reveals that the van is, indeed, a gas van to kill the children.

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Croatian NDH camp guards push the other children away as the gas van is filled up with children.

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Ivo sees female prisoners at the camp. Camp guards grotesquely dance with them. The female inmates are dazed. Ivo notices Ruth and calls to her. Zvonko intercedes and takes him away. He confronts Zvonko, punches him in the mouth. Zvonko is knocked out. Ivo escapes.

He finds Ruth and they make a run for it. They make their way through the camp unseen by the camp guards at night.

They watch as a female inmate runs to the fence where she is electrocuted on the barbed wire fence. The searchlight from the watchtower scans the camp as they move around it trying to find an escape route.

They finally reach the fence and both climb it. Ivo helps Ruth climb the fence. She reaches the top. They appear to be able to escape. But then the guards turn on the electricity and they are both electrocuted. There is a flash of white light. This is the final scene.

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The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 33rd ceremony. It was also entered into the 1960 Cannes Film Festival where it was nominated for the Palme d’Or. The film won the Velika Zlatna arena award for best film at the 1960 Pula Film Festival. The film was also released in the U.S., the Soviet Union, France, Argentina, and Hungary.

The film is an effective dramatization of the World War II period in the NDH. The major flaw of the film is that nowhere does it make any reference to the real Croatian concentration camps. The word “Jasenovac” does not appear in the film. This distances the film too much from the historical reality and the context of the events. The term “Deveti krug” is a meaningless designation that functions to distort and to obscure the actual facts. If one can get over this fatal flaw, the movie remains a powerful evocation of the NDH period.