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The Boston Phoenix Going Dutch

The strength of van Diem's "Character."

By Peter Keough

APRIL 20, 1998:  If Charles Dickens collaborated with Franz Kafka and both lost their sense of humor, the resulting melodrama might loom as darkly as Dutch director Mike van Diem's Oscar-winning first feature, Character.

Humor might have lightened his load in telling this hefty tale, adapted from a classic 1930s novel by Ferdinand Bordewijk, which spans two generations and explores themes of fate, identity, and the tyranny of families and society. Even so, van Diem demonstrates a deceptively fluid narrative style, a knack for evoking a historical period and a social milieu, and most impressively for establishing a palpable atmosphere of melancholy and dread. Although he ultimately sheds little light on the title concept, he more than makes up for that with his talent for illuminating characters on the screen.

The tone is set from the opening scene. In a forbidding garret that might have served as a setting for The Trial, shot in eye-numbing chiaroscuro reminiscent of Rembrandt at his most umbrous, Katadreufe (Fedja van Huet), a young, newly graduated lawyer with a disarming resemblance to Robert Downey Jr., confronts Dreverhaven (Jan Decleir), a draconian Rotterdam capitalist and bailiff. Plunging a knife into the older man's desk, Katadreufe announces that, for him, Dreverhaven no longer exists.

Neither, as it turns out, will he exist for anyone else. Battered and resigned, Katadreufe is hauled off to the police station and charged with Dreverhaven's murder. Declaring his innocence, the accused man tells his story.

Such circular plots generally rely on the cinema-deadening device of voiceover narration, but van Diem wields this tool with brisk confidence, interweaving it with visually rich, emotionally laden events. His transitions for the most part are seamless (a dream sequence involving Dreverhaven and an inserted flashback between the bailiff and another character violate the point of view and are jarring), and he shifts from scene to scene and from past to present with overlapping sound, matched camera movements, and complementary compositions, allowing the whole to emerge with the numinous cadences of remembered experience.

All of which goes a long way toward concealing how mundane the story actually is. Katadreufe, it seems, is Dreverhaven's illegitimate son, the issue of a one-night stand with Joba (Betty Schuurman, adequate to the task of playing a character who seldom speaks and never changes expression), his secretary, who leaves his employ at once and, despite his repeated proposals of marriage and pathetic desolation at her departure, refuses all future contact with the father.

Monolithic pride and lifelong obsessions are the mainstays of these characters' lives when they're not, in Dreverhaven's case, joylessly evicting impoverished tenants or declaring bankruptcy on debtors, or, in Joba's, stoically bearing the brunt of poverty and ostracism and coldly denying her son love. Inheriting a little from each gene pool, Katadreufe becomes aloof, ascetic, and driven, singlemindedly seeking independence from both his mother and his shadowy father.

He takes out a loan for an investment in a tobacco store that, unfortunately, does not go up in smoke. In one of the story's occasional lapses into contrivance, it turns out that Katadreufe has inadvertently borrowed from his father's bank, adding a financial bond to that of blood. Although he relentlessly scrambles from a menial position in a law firm to a partnership, his great expectations seem perpetually blighted by the paternal shadow.

The violent coda aside, much of the action of Character takes place in courtrooms, offices, and counting houses and involves a lot of scribbling in ledgers and compounding of interest. More intriguing are Katadreufe's clumsy, clueless dealings with supporting characters: the secretary Lorna Te George (Tamar van den Dop), whose love he smothers with his obsessive mission; De Gankelaar (Victor Low), his superior at the firm, whose prosthetic jaw conveys both truculence and pathos; and Jan Maan (Hans Kesting), his mother's lodger, whose good-natured communism doesn't prevent him from helping Katadreufe rise in society.

Mostly, though, it's the basilisk specter of the bad dad, played by the uncanny Jan Decleir. In his black homburg and overcoat he hovers over the moist, murky streets of Rotterdam like an inkblot from a Rorschach test. He's all the more appalling because of his wounded humanity. The image that most defines him is repeated twice: drenched and despairing, he gazes across a river at his beloved as she leaves him forever. It's the legacy passed from every parent to every child: the true test of character is loss.

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