1997, R, 125 min. Directed by Mike Van Diem. Starring Fedja Van Huet, Jan Decleir, Betty Schuurman, Victor Low, Tamar Van Den Dop, Sting.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 15, 1998
Character, this year's Oscar winner for best foreign picture, is a Dutch epic about a son's struggle with his tyrannical father. It's a good-looking, well-acted, and well-constructed saga that, nevertheless, feels curiously remote and uninvolving. Adapted from a popular 1938 novel of the same title by Ferdinand Bordewijk, the film is assuredly written and directed by first-timer Mike van Diem. Set in 1920s Rotterdam, Character is shaped like a thriller, albeit one with a Dickensian dramatic sprawl and a nostalgically romantic touch. It tells the difficult life story of the aspiring young lawyer Jacob Willem Katadreuffe (van Huet) and begins right at the story's climax -- an apparent murder committed by the young man -- and then relates the story of Katadreuffe's life in flashback as he tells his saga while under cross-examination by the police for the crime. “You have worked against me all my life,” shouts Katadreuffe during that opening confrontation with the man whom we learn is his father. “Or for you,” the father counters. Katadreuffe is the illegitimate child of Dreverhaven (Decleir), the city's most feared bailiff, a man who specializes in mercilessly evicting the poor from their domiciles. It seems the one moment of tenderness Dreverhaven ever had was his one-time dalliance with his housekeeper Joba Katadreuffe (Schuurman), which resulted in the conception of his offspring Jacob. Joba moves from her employer's quarters and wordlessly rebuffs his numerous proposals of marriage. She is no less austere with her son, remaining coldly silent and inscrutable. Taunted as a bastard by the other children and suffering from impoverishment, Jacob develops an uneasy kinship with his aloof mother while what he sees in the streets constantly reminds him of the harsh shadow cast by his father. When one day Joba rents out her son's bedroom to a paying boarder, Jacob takes it as his sign to leave home. Thus he embarks on the first of many economic self-help schemes that inevitably leave him in debt to his father, whose financial tentacles within the community are myriad. But Jacob uses his pluck, self-initiative, and mental agility to nevertheless advance in the world; ultimately, he becomes a successful lawyer. But always he's a driven little thing, humorless and cut off from the possibilities of love -- one of those walking billboards for the failure of success. And it's the inextricable yet unacknowledged knot between father and son that may be for both of them their curse and redemption. Who really knows? So much of Character (like its ominous yet ill-defined title), remains unspoken and unclear. Furthermore, the three essentially dislikable protagonists at the heart of the story do little to suck in the viewer's sympathies. But who's to say if such murky motivational parries are not the truest portrait of family life?