Pain and Regret
Van Diem's Oscar-winning "Character" is a compelling film about human relations.
By Mary Dickson
MAY 26, 1998: When Mike van Diem picked up his Oscar for best foreign language film this year, he was disarmingly jubilant, hopping up and down and promising Americans that his film had great subtitles.
Character, his mesmerizing Dickensian epic about a son's lifelong struggle with his tyrannical father, marked van Diem's feature film directorial debut. Van Diem based his ambitious film, set in Holland in the 1920s, on the 1938 Dutch classic by Ferdinand Bordewijk, which is required reading in Dutch high schools. The director, however, creates his own "romantic evocation" of the novel, structuring Bordewijk's parable about hatred and spite as a well-oiled murder mystery.
The atmospheric period film opens as an aspiring young lawyer named Katadreuffe (Fedja Van Huet) is being interrogated for the murder of Rotterdams' dreaded debt collector, Dreverhaven (Jan Decleir). The story then unfolds in flashbacks as Katadreuffe recounts the events leading up to the crime. As the details emerge, we discover not only the relationship, but the true character of the two men.
Katadreuffe was born the illegitimate son of Dreverhaven and his surly housekeeper Joba (Betty Schuurman), who refused her employer's repeated proposals of marriage and opted instead to raise her child in poverty. Young Katadreuffe endures the taunts of his classmates and his mother's chilling silence by seeking refuge in his books.
He figures out early on that the feared Dreverhaven is his father, though the man assumes no responsibility for him. When Katadreuffe asks his mother about this imposing character, she says only, "We need nothing from him." But the boy can't let it rest. His first boyhood encounter with his father sets them on a bitter lifelong struggle, with the two seemingly intent on destroying each other.
As a young man, the self-taught Katadreuffe, determined to improve his station in life, takes a loan to invest in a cigar shop, which turns out to be a financial disaster that leaves him bankrupt. When he goes to a prestigious law firm to plead his case, he is convinced he has found his destiny. Through his wiles, he is hired on as a clerk, learns to type and take shorthand, and begins his studies in earnest. But he discovers that Dreverhaven runs the bank which originally gave him his loan, and Dreverhaven pronounces him bankrupt.
His new employer, a kindly man who becomes his mentor, bails him out, but it's not enough for the obstinate Katadreuffe. He wants to challenge Dreverhaven, so he takes out an even larger loan. The battle of wills between father and son escalates. The more Dreverhaven pushes, the more Katadreuffe obstinately sets out to win him at his game.
Katadreuffe is smitten by a beautiful young woman in his office, though he is unable to express his interest. When he mistakenly thinks she is involved with someone else, he throws himself into his work with renewed vigor, determined to become an attorney and not to let anythingincluding the woman he silently lovesdistract him. It's a decision he will come to regret. Like his parents, Katadreuffe will sacrifice everythingeven his own happiness, health and sanityin the single minded pursuit of his goal. His dogged determination to succeed is fueled by his obsessive desire to get back at the mother who won't speak to him and the father who seems intent on ruining him.
Dutch theater icon Jan Decleir (he played the farmer in Antonia's Line) creates an imposing presence as the stern Dreverhaven; who looms like a menacing shadow throughout the film, swooping ominously into the lives of both his illegitimate son and the impoverished renters he unmercifully evicts. "The curse of the poor," he operates without compassion according to the letter of the law, even dragging the bed of a dying woman into the street without remorse.
Dreverhaven could have been only a blackhearted villain, but Declier takes us deeper inside the character and makes him morally ambiguous. In one scene, he bravely defies death by walking into a riot to deliver an eviction notice. At another point, he hands his raging son his knife, defying him to use it. "Brave or tired of life?" asks a man recounting how Dreverhaven once jumped into the icy waters. "He's indifferent. That makes him dangerous." It's an indifference bred of emotional repression. All he ever wanted was to marry Joba, and now he has nothing but his own bitter hatred and cruelty.
His vulnerability surfaces in an effective dream sequence in which he stands naked before the angry masses descending upon him and beating at him as he futilely hides behind his badge of authority. But he is at his most vulnerable when he sits in front of his mirror, meticulously trimming his nose hair and clipping his ear hair to prepare himself to make his final proposal. "When is the wedding, Joba?" he asks, a broken, miserable and pitiful man. When Joba rejects him for the last time, his only recourse is to turn the screws on the one thing they shareKatadreuffe.
Expertly played by Fedja van Huet, Katadreuffe is ultimately as pathetic as his tormentor. In their common pride and stubbornness, their eagerness to destroy each other, they have deprived themselves of any joy. Van Diem has crafted a compelling film about human relations which simmers with a tamped down tension until it builds to a powerful emotional crescendo, packed with pain and regret.
Despite his enormous success and achievements, Katadreuffe makes the painful realization that "I had everything, but at the same time I had nothing." Revenge is always a hollow thing. And as Kartadreuffe discovers, the only thing profound hatred can beget is overwhelming emptiness.
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