Mar 2, 2015

The Assault (1986)

Undoubtedly, every modern western nation has its overrated token Judaic literary figure as it would be considered nothing short of antisemitism for white Europeans and Americans to not put at least one Semitic scribbler, especially if they are a proud shoah survivor like Eli Wiesel, on a grand pedestal, even if they are not even remotely worthy of such a honor. In the Netherlands, Harry Mulisch—a fellow who, along with his Jewess mother, managed to remain rather unscathed during the Nazi occupation because his Austrian gentile banker father worked for a kraut bank that dealt with confiscated Jewish assets—is undoubtedly considered the most famous post-WWII Jewish writer and unlike that obscenely overrated weasel Wiesel, he is somewhat deserving of his great fame. Aside from his novels, Mulisch is also famous for his rather flagrant arrogance which bordered on megalomania as reflected in statements like, “I don’t just remember it; I am World War II.” Possibly as a result of his bizarre situation as a Dutch Jew who was not persecuted during the Second World War and because his Aryan father collaborated with the Nazis and was thus later imprisoned as a Nazi collaborator, Mulisch took a more intricate view of the Nazi occupation and its aftermath as personified in his best-selling novel De Aanslag (1982) aka The Assault which, unlike most Dutch novels, was translated into more than 30 languages and spawned a hit film adaptation that was just as successful as the book, even if it is not as famous as it probably should be in the United States where reading subtitles is certainly not the norm. Indeed, the film is notable for being the first Dutch film to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1986 and was directed by Fons Rademakers (Mira, Because of the Cats aka The Rape) who incidentally was also the very first Dutch filmmaker to be nominated for an Academy Award via his work Dorp aan de rivier (1958) aka The Village by the River in 1959. 

 Although distributed by the kosher kitsch kings at Cannon Films who mostly churned out senseless action-packed schlock and proudly anti-artistic celluloid swell featuring big tits and big guns, The Assault (1986) aka De Aanslag is a classic epic war-drama with a quasi-arthouse style and 140+ minute running time that is probably the only Nazi occupation work of its kind that is worthy of being compared to Paul Verhoeven’s Soldaat van Oranje (1977) aka Soldier of Orange which, incidentally, was also penned by prolific Dutch screenwriter Gerard Soeteman (Turks fruit aka Turkish Delight, Spetters). A film that spans over four paradigm-shifting decades, beginning at the end of World War II and concluding in the 1980s, The Assault is also probably the closest thing to a Dutch equivalent to Edgar Reitz’s magnum opus Heimat: A Chronicle of Germany (1984) in terms of its subtly melancholic depiction of the serious social changes of a Germanic nation over the course of a number of decades, with the Second World War ultimately being the most obvious catalyst for these mostly deleterious transformations. A carefully crafted political-thriller in a slowburning yet sometimes action-packed Greek tragedy form, Rademakers' film tells the story of a barely likeable Dutch doctor who unravels the unpredictable fact and curious circumstances that led to the deaths of his entire family at the hands of the Gestapo after a Dutch Nazi collaborator is killed outside of his family home by members of the resistance. A work about the irony of fate where there are no clear-cut heroes and where supposed good guys’ actions are just as deleterious and deadly as supposed bad guys’, The Assault is a film that might sometimes feel like an unintentionally hokey Hollywood film in its occasionally contrived direction and crappy pseudo-classical music, but ultimately features relatively complex philosophical themes that expose Steven Spielberg for the reductionist Zionist agitpropagandist that he is, as Schindler's List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998), and Munich (2005) seem like insults to the human experience and history when compared to Rademakers' film, which does something rather rare for its (sub)genre in that it depicts the consequences of war from all different perspectives.  Indeed, The Assault is probably the only film you will ever see where an elderly resistance fighter is still consumed with hatred for his ex-enemies despite the war ending about four decades before and the son of a Nazi is depicted as the most mentally, emotionally, and economically forsaken of all the characters.  Of course, unlike the United States, the Netherlands, like most of Europe, only faced pain and misery as a result of the Second World War.

 As narrated at the beginning of The Assault, “It’s January 1945. Almost all of Europe is liberated…celebrating, eating, drinking and making love. But here in Haarlem it’s still war. And winter. The winter of starvation.” Indeed, elderly men are dropping like flies via starvation as a result of the Hongerwinter (‘Hunger Winter’) famine, but 12-year-old protagonist Anton Steenwijk (played by Marc van Uchelen, who eventually became a filmmaker but later committed suicide in 2013 at the age of 42) seems totally unaffected by the misery of World War II and is even friendly with a much hated classmate named Fake Ploeg whose father is a Dutch Nazi collaborator and is purportedly responsible for the death and torture of various members of the shadowy Dutch resistance. When Nazi Fake Ploeg Sr. is killed in Anton’s neighborhood and the neighbors, a semi-sexy nurse named Karin Korteweg (Ina van der Molen) and her widowed father, inexplicably move the corpse in front of the protagonist’s family home, the Gestapo ultimately burns down the protagonist’s house, kill his entire family and 19 other people as a reprisal for the assassination. Indeed, when the Gestapo showed up at the Steenwijk home and noticed that Anton’s father had a copy of a book by Dutch Sephardic Jewish philosopher Spinoza sitting out, the Nazi in charge felt they had their culprits, especially considering the protagonist’s 17-year-old brother Peter (Casper de Boer) was caught attempting to move Ploeg’s corpse and run away with the dead Nazi’s gun. After being separated from his parents and watching his house being burned down by Nazis with blowtorches, Anton is put in a prison cell with a young female Dutch resistance fighter (Monique van de Ven) who refuses to tell the boy her name but gives him the advice, “…one thing you should never forget for the rest of your life. Don’t forget that the Krauts set your house on fire. Who did it, did it…And not someone else.” When Anton reveals to the woman what happened to him and his family, she begins to cry and remarks, “You know, if the resistance hadn’t done it…that Ploeg would have killed a lot of other people.” Although their interaction is brief and the protagonist only manages to see the resistance fighter’s large sensual lips, Anton will remember the encounter with the “communist whore” (as she is described by a Nazi officer) for the rest of his life. 

Ultimately, Anton (Derek de Lint) is driven to Amsterdam the next day by some German soldiers and goes to live with his uncle after learning his parents and brother have been executed. Flash forward to 1952 and Anton is a medical student that, “doesn’t meddle with politics, no more than he does with his past,” but that changes when he goes back to his hometown in Haarlem for the first time since his parents were killed, “because a friend passed his Master’s degree in dental surgery.” While walking around his old neighborhood, Anton is spotted by his old neighbor Mrs. Beumer (Elly Weller) who reveals to him that his belated mother attacked SD men and that both his parents were “killed like animals.” When Mrs. Beumer reveals that a monument has been erected to his parents and the rest of the people from Haarlem were killed by the Germans, Anton visits it by himself and seems quite melancholy, but he subsequently buries the past and does not revisit it again until 1956 when he has a chance encounter with his old childhood ‘friend’ Fake Ploeg Jr. at a violent communist riot in Amsterdam. Like his belated Nazi father, Fake is a staunch anticommunist and seems quite resentful that Anton is now a doctor. As Fake explains, his mother was put in a concentration camp for NSB members/Nazi collaborators simply because she was the widow of a Nazi, so he was forced to go to trade school instead of college and now works at an appliance shop doing “repairs and the like.” Fake clearly suffers from a persecution complex and rants regarding his need to battle communist scum in Amsterdam, “My father is right. Everything they say about communists now, he was already saying in the war…And it’s those damn communists who killed him.” Needless to say, Anton is not impressed and when he suggests that Fake’s father was responsible for the murder of his parents, the discernibly angst-ridden anticommunist goes berserk, throws a rock at the mirror, and runs out of the protagonist's apartment, though he briefly comes back to tell him that he will always remember that he was the only person in Haarlem to be nice to him when he was a kid and everyone in town hated him because he was the son of a Nazi collaborator. Undoubtedly, out of all the people in the entire film, Fake is clearly the one that was mostly deeply affected by the aftermath of the war, though virtually ever single character wears the internal scars of the singularly catastrophic event. 

 Although he spends a good portion of his early adult years having short month-long relationships as if he has intimacy problems and lacks the capacity to devote himself to a single woman as a result of his tragic experiences during childhood, Anton decides to get married after meeting a Dutch girl while on a trip in East London named Saskia de Graaff (also played by Monique van de Ven) that has the same exact lips as the mysterious resistance fighter he met when he was 12-years-old. While at a funeral for his father-in-law’s resistance fighter friend, Anton overhears an old fat man named Cor Takes (John Kraaykamp) aka ‘Gijs’ discussing his role in assassinating Fake Ploeg. After introducing himself to Gijs, the elderly resistance fighter justifies killing Ploeg by stating, “He’d use a whip with a wire to flay the skin off your face. He’d push your bare bottom against the hot stove. He’d put a garden hose in your ass so that you would puke your own shit. He had to be taken care of.”  Surely, Anton becomes somewhat annoyed with Gijs because he realizes that if he had not killed Ploeg, his family would have never been executed by the Gestapo. While talking together, Anton is startled to learn that Gijs was the lover of the sensual-lipped female resistance fighter he met when he was a kid. Gijs also reveals to Anton that the female resistance fighter’s name was Truus Coster and she was executed by the Gestapo at some sand dunes near Amsterdam. 

 After learning about the true identity of resistance fighter Truus Coster, Anton starts a strange and somewhat reluctant relationship with Gijs that ultimately makes him become obsessed with the death of his parents and the mysterious circumstances revolving around the death of Fake, like why his neighbor Karin and her father moved the Nazi’s corpse in front of his family home. Although having a young daughter with her named Sandra, Anton divorces Saskia and eventually marries another woman named Elisabeth (Mies de Heer) with whom he has a son named Peter in tribute to his dead brother. While at an anti-nuclear protest that he is blackmailed into joining by his dentist friend Gerrit-Jan (Kees Coolen), Anton bumps into his ex-neighbor Karin and he does not waste anytime  asking her why she and her father moved Ploeg’s body in front of his family’s house, thereupon resulting in their deaths. After explaining that her father was so consumed with guilt as a result of being indirectly responsible for his family’s death that he moved to New Zealand and eventually committed suicide, Karin explains that they decided to drop Ploeg’s body in front of his house instead of their neighbors the Aarts because the latter family was hiding Jews in their home and they did not want the Nazis to find them. After discovering that his family’s demise was the accidental circumstance of protecting a hidden Jewish family, Anton seems to come to terms with the past and can finally move on with the future. 

 Ironically, despite the resentment that many Dutch people still hold for the Germans as a result of the Second World War, the Netherlands is home to what is probably the only monument dedicated to a German Wehrmacht soldier in the entire world. The monument was made in tribute to a German solider named Private Karl-Heinz Rösch who was blown up at the mere age of 18 just moments after saving the lives of two small Dutch children at a farm in the small southern Netherlands village of Goirle during an Allied attack on October 6, 1944. In a somewhat strange way, I think The Assault expresses the same message as the Rösch monument as it completely demystifies the official narrative regarding ‘good’ and ‘evil’ during the Second World War, as both works of art demonstrate the impact of individual acts during wartime. Indeed, while the protagonist of the film is told by various people to never forget that ‘the krauts’ were responsible for torching his family home and killing his parents, the character also encounters nice German soldiers and realizes that some members of the resistance were just as much of murderous thugs as the most merciless members of the Gestapo. While the protagonist’s parents were indeed executed by the krauts, their deaths were the direct result of a series of misunderstandings and unfortunate circumstances that are especially common during times of war when one small slip can result in death. As source writer Harry Mulisch, who was a lifelong left-winger, stated of his own father’s stranger-than-fiction circumstances as a man who ultimately paid a major price for protecting his Jewish son and wife, “It’s a terrible paradox of the war. My father took great risks to save my mother and was later condemned as a collaborator.” While I think the conclusion was somewhat preposterous and some of the scenes were hopelessly contrived, The Assault is an engulfing work that acts as a sort of antidote to the mundanely dichotomous black-and-white morality of virtually all Hollywood WWII films. While the protagonist seems to think otherwise when he learns of the true circumstances leading up to his family’s death, his kinfolk ultimately died pointless deaths which, although quite typical of war, seems to be a concept that most Americans do not want to accept as reflected by the fact that they call virtually anyone that dies in a pointless Zionist war a ‘hero.’  Apparently, during his Oscar acceptance speech, director Fons Rademakers naively attempted to convince American audiences to get over their seemingly undying fear of reading subtitles and embrace films from other countries.  For better or worse, The Assault is indubitably one of the most ‘accessible’ Dutch films ever made, even if it forces the viewer to slightly look beyond good and evil as far as morality is concerned, thus making it the perfect introductory work for novices of cinema from the Netherlands.

-Ty E


Tony Brubaker said...

Oscar winner `87, HEATHER WAS STILL ALIVE ! ! !.

Tony Brubaker said...

On the poster he does look startlingly like that odious British faggot Dirk Bogarde, how unfortunate.

Phantom of Pulp said...

I believe we've met before, Brubaker.