On a wintry night in January, 1945, in the Dutch town of Haarlem, a family of four sits around the dining room table playing games by the faint light of a small oil lamp. The sound of gunshots pierces the evening's silence, and the family's younger son, peering out a window, sees some neighbors dragging the body of a much-hated Nazi collaborator into their front yard. Moments later this 12-year-old boy will be torn from his parents and older brother, never to see them again, saved only by his youth.
From this terrifying beginning, "The Assault" (at the Beverly Center Cineplex), Holland's official entry in the Oscars, becomes a somber, complex saga of that boy's struggle to repress this traumatic event right up to adulthood in the near-present.
Adapted by Gerard Soeteman from the Harry Mulisch novel and directed by the esteemed Fons Rademakers, "The Assault" represents an attempt to confront Holland's wartime experience--at once a time of suffering and courage, cowardice and shame--under the German Occupation. In masterly fashion, Soeteman, who most notably adapted "Turkish Delight," "Keetje Tippel" and "Soldier of Orange" for director Paul Verhoeven, and Rademakers, best known for "Max Havelaar," lay out their film's major themes of the inescapability of the past and the need for acceptance and forgiveness.
"The Assault" is also a mystery, a probe of the convoluted workings of the human psyche, and at last a quest for the precise reason why it happened that those neighbors hauled that body in front of the home of 12-year-old Anton Steenwijk (Marc Van Uchelen).
Anton is the son of a rather severe and oldish father, an intellectual and local government official whose family has kept to itself and not gotten involved in the Resistance. Indeed, in the face of escalating shortages of food and fuel during the final and increasingly treacherous stage of the Occupation, the Steenwijks and their neighbors, who live on a pleasant, tree-lined street in an upper-middle-class neighborhood (much like those all over America), make heroic efforts to conduct their lives as normally as possible.
It is not until 1952 that Anton (now played by Derek De Lint), who has made a new home with an uncle in Amsterdam and who is, significantly, to become an anesthetist by profession, returns to Haarlem for a friend's graduation ceremony.
From here on, "The Assault" will leapfrog over the years until 1983, stopping along the way for key moments in the life of Anton, which are in turn introduced with newsreel clips of world and national events. In essence, "The Assault" proceeds as a series of encounters that, despite Anton's resistance, bring back the past in ever-sharpening focus.
Over the years, there are vivid and painful meetings with numerous people who inadvertently offer pieces of the puzzle. Most important is that with an old Resistance fighter (John Kraaykamp), whom Anton meets by chance at a funeral. The sparring that ensues between the cool, handsome Anton, who tries to turn his back on the past, and this burly, aging man, who determinedly immerses himself in it, constitutes the heart of "The Assault" (rated PG for some intense, brutal scenes and mature themes).
Perhaps it's because the Dutch film industry has always been so marginal that its directors and writers have been able to bring such passion to the large-scale traditional narrative, a form ever in danger of exhaustion in the American cinema (yet ever capable of renewal-- vide the similarly cathartic "Platoon").
It's as if the Dutch, like the Australians in recent years, have had so little opportunity to see themselves and their experience up there on the screen that when they get the chance, they're going to pack every frame with emotion and meaning. As a result, "The Assault" is consistently intense, at once panoramic, evincing a sure sense of period over its four-decade span, yet intimate and detailed.
De Lint excels in the difficult task of expressing the inner anguish that the moody, intelligent Anton tries so hard to quell. Van Uchelen is no less fine as the young Anton, a bright, obedient youth with large, dark, inquisitive eyes. Kraaykamp is one of those actors who pours his entire being into his role, filling the screen with his presence. Monique van de Ven skillfully pulls off her dual assignment as Anton's vivacious first wife and a doomed woman who comforts the young Anton during his night in a jail cell. The film's scores of smaller roles are played with equal distinction.
It's not until "The Assault's" ironic concluding sequence that it becomes fully clear that the use of the newsreel clips has not been merely for punctuation. At that moment we realize that Anton has never involved himself in the events and causes of his time. It's only when he does that he stumbles upon the truth of the past, which will set him free of it at last.