`The Assault' - most absorbing film from Europe in years

``The Assault,'' a Dutch movie directed by Fons Rademakers, paid a quick visit to the United States a few months ago - vanishing almost as suddenly as it arrived, as often happens with non-American films on American screens. Now it's back, on the strength of an Academy Award for best foreign-language picture, and audiences have another chance to explore its thought-provoking themes.

The beginning of the story takes place during Germany's occupation of the Netherlands in the 1940s.

The main character is Anton, a young boy whose well-off and well-educated family is meeting day-to-day hardships with commendable strength and good humor.

Everything changes in a flash, however, when a Nazi collaborator is gunned down in front of a neighboring house. Since the Nazis will aim reprisals at anyone who lives in that house - regardless of their innocence in the shooting - the occupants quickly move the body, dumping it in front of Anton's home.

His family is put to death almost immediately. Spared because of his age, he is whisked to a distant city and put in care of a relative.

The movie then becomes episodic, jumping from one period to another in Anton's life. We see him as a student, a young professional, a new husband, a father, and eventually a middle-aged man.

But a common thread runs through all these stages of his experience:

He insists repeatedly that events of his childhood are ancient history, and moreover, that it's pointless to take much interest in politics or world affairs.

Even his profession - he's a medical anesthetist - seems to reflect this feel-nothing attitude.

If this were all there is to the story, ``The Assault'' would be a knowing and ultimately chilling account of an individual scarred by war so deeply that he never realizes, despite his intelligence and education, how profound the effect has been.

But a subplot is also woven into the screenplay, as the protagonist gradually learns new facts about the incident that destroyed his family.

This culminates in the very last scene, as an unexpected conversation gives him a stunningly new perspective on why the collaborator's body was dumped at his house in the first place - forcing him to question his own family's values, and his own unrealized assumptions, in a way that's sure to change him forever.

Some scenes in ``The Assault'' veer close to cheap melodrama and even soap opera, and some of the acting is very ragged. Most of the major roles are sensitively and convincingly played, though, and director Rademakers moves the action at a stimulating pace.

Its flaws aside, this is definitely one of the most absorbing films to come out of Europe in recent years.

David Sterritt is the Monitor's film critic.

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