Mar 8, 2015


Undoubtedly, aside from possibly Fons Rademakers’ epic Harry Mulisch adaptation The Assault (1986) aka De Aanslag and Marleen Gorris' insufferable ‘feminist fairytale’ Antonia's Line (1995), Karakter (1997) aka Character co-written and directed by Mike van Diem is probably the most successful, critically revered, and well known Dutch film in the United States. Indeed, like Rademakers and Gorris' films, van Diem’s debut feature won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards and is one of the few Dutch films that is not a pain in the ass to find in the U.S. on DVD. Of course, considering the sort of obscenely overrated European films (e.g. Tom Tywker’s Run Lola Run (1998), that seem to get a lot of attention in the United States, I was somewhat hesitant to watch Character but considering I have recently seen a number of worthwhile films starring leading man Fedja van Huêt, including Erik de Bruyn’s Wilde Mossels (2000) aka Wild Mussels and Martin Koolhoven’s AmnesiA (2001), I ultimately gave in and decided to give it a watch. Based on both the best-selling 1938 novel of the same name and short story Dreverhaven en Katadreuffe (1981) by Dutch writer Ferdinand Bordewijk—a modernist writer whose style mixed elements of the ‘New Objectivity’ movement and magic realism—the film has an aesthetic clearly influenced by German expressionism and had a fairly large budget (7 million Dutch guilders) and shooting period (it was shot over a 71 day period between the summer and fall of 1996). As can be expected for such a big Dutch production, Character was produced by the ‘commercial’ Dutch studio First Floor Features co-owned by Dick Maas, whose hit films Flodder (1986) and Amsterdamned (1988) were also produced by the studio. Of course, First Floor Features is also responsible for producing ‘arthouse’ works, most notably Alex van Warmerdam’s first two features Abel (1986) and De Noorderlingen (1992) aka The Northerners, so it is not much of a surprise that they would also be responsible for van Diem’s film. What is a big surprise about Character is that such an expensive production, which was also partly co-produced by the Belgian production company Kladaradatsch!, was given to a director, cinematographer, and lead actor that were more or less novices who had yet to tackle such an ambitious production. Indeed, while director van Diem had won the Dutch ‘Golden Calf’ for best short film and the Student Academy Award for best foreign student film for his short Alaska (1989), he had nil experience directing an actual feature-length with a large film crew. Similarly, while lead actor van Huêt had appeared in small roles in Theo van Gogh’s Jan Wolkers adaptation Terug naar Oegstgeest (1987) aka Return to Oegstgeest, Gerrit van Elst’s Advocaat van de Hanen (1996) aka Punk Lawyer, and a couple TV shows, he was far from a well leading man that could lure in audiences with his reputation. Despite being such a mainstream big budget effort, Character is a decidedly Dutch tale about the poor bastard son of an ‘evil’ powerful bailiff who torments the progeny he has never had a relationship with as a curious means to make sure he grows up to be a strong and successful fellow who can stand on his two feet. A somewhat crushing tale about a young man that is so obsessed with spiting his seemingly all-powerful father that he misses out on everything else in life that actually makes life worth living like sex and love, among other things, van Huêt’s film ultimately captures the emotionally glacial character of many of the Dutch people, especially in relation to their families.  Indeed, whether intentional or not on the director and co-writers part (aside from director van Diem, the film was also co-written by producer Laurens Geels and Ruud van Megen), Character is more about the Dutch national character than anything.

 The place and time is the Dutch city of Rotterdam during the early 1930s (although not really revealed in the film, the novel is set between the protagonist's birth in 1903 and 1931 when he graduates as a lawyer) and young protagonist Jacob Willem Katadreuffe (van Huêt) visits the office of his much hated father Dreverhaven (Belgian actor Jan Decleir) to spitefully say to the man, “I’ve come to tell you…today I have been sworn in as a lawyer. I’m sure you regret this, but I’ve succeeded…and this is my very last visit to you.” To Katadreuffe's surprise, Dreverhaven congratulates him and asks to shake his hand, but the protagonist responds rather hatefully by stating, “I cannot shake the hand of someone who's worked against me my entire life.” That same day, Dreverhaven is murdered and Katadreuffe, whose clothes are covered in blood, is arrested as he seems like the culprit, especially after a number of people noticed the protagonist leaving the scene of the crime in a hasty fashion. For the rest of Character, Katadreuffe tells his dejecting life story about how he came to spitefully hate the man that fathered him despite never really knowing him. Although all evidence seems to point elsewhere, Katadreuffe rather vocally maintains his innocence. First, the protagonist states of his father, “Dreverhaven…the law without compassion…the curse of the poor” and proceeds to describe how the man is infamous for literally throwing impoverished people into the street as a pernicious bailiff who makes the monstrously miserly money men of a Charles Dickens novel seem somewhat benign by comparison. Katadreuffe’s mother Jacoba aka ‘Joba’ (Betty Schuurman) was in the service of Dreverhaven as a servant for about one year when the bailiff decided to initiate a “once-only affair” that resulted in the peasant woman’s impregnation. About six weeks after conception, Joba broke the silence and told Dreverhaven, “I’m expecting. I’m leaving,” and ultimately left for good, thus ushering in the beginning of a lifelong feud of sorts. 

 As protagonist Katadreuffe explains to the police inspector, both his mother Joba and father Dreverhaven were fairly quiet people who rarely ever talked, thus underscoring their fairly similar personalities as rather cold and introverted individuals who seem to have a complete and utter incapacity to express their feelings. With the help of his assistant, Dreverhaven tracked down Joba’s whereabouts after she had given birth to protagonist Katadreuffe and sent a letter merely reading, “When is our wedding?” along with a money order for a suitable sum, but the proud and pigheaded peasant woman rejected the letter and it was sent back to the sender. In what protagonist Katadreuffe describes as a “duel” that “lasted more than a year,” Dreverhaven attempted to send the same letter to Joba month after month until he eventually received a response that read, “Will Always Be Refused.” Meanwhile, Katadreuffe is now a young grade school boy that is taunted at school by other boys with notes reading “bastard” and verbal reminders that his “mother is a whore.” Anytime Katadreuffe attempted to ask his mother about the identity of his father, she would reply “We need nothing of him.” After Katadreuffe nearly chokes another boy to death after he attacks him and calls his mother a whore, the protagonist’s family is forced to move to another area of Rotterdam closer to Dreverhaven. One day while with his mother at a port, Katadreuffe sees his father for the first time and becomes obsessed with getting to know him. After the protagonist is arrested after unwittingly getting involved with a gang of poor boys stealing bread, he decides to tell the police guard that his father is Katadreuffe, but when the bailiff shows up at the police station, he denies knowing the boy and Katadreuffe narrowly escapes being raped by a gay pedophile prison guard, thus inspiring him to say to his mother regarding his father, “we need nothing of him.”  Indeed, Katadreuffe ultimately realizes that it is probably not a good idea to get in contact with a negligent father who is so cold and callous in terms of his character that he allows his completely vulnerable son to become the prisoner of a sadistic child molester.

 Determined to make something of his life and make the most of his seemingly unwavering intellectual potential and thirst for knowledge, Katadreuffe begins religiously reading a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica that he has acquired even though the set of books only goes up to the letter “T.” One of the reasons the protagonist decides to escape into an introverted world of books and ideas is that his mother completely refuses to talk to him. When Katadreuffe reaches his early adult years, he decides to works as much as possible so that he can leave his mother’s home because he feels unwanted there. Around the same time, a young communist ‘true believer’ named Jan Maan (Hans Kesting) rents a room at Joba’s home and the new tenant and protagonist soon become good friends despite their very different world views. Ultimately, Katadreuffe comes up with the idea to buy a cigar shop as a means to develop his independence and to get away from his mother, but the protagonist falls into bankruptcy when the business he buys is a scam (instead of cigars, he receives boxes of hay) and he is unable to pay back the creditors. Luckily, since the value of his assets is less than the court costs, Katadreuffe is told by an eccentric lawyer named De Gankelaar (Victor Löw) at the law firm representing him that they have decided to cancel the bankruptcy. After making an audacious attempt at impressing some clients at the law firm with his command of English, Katadreuffe manages to convince De Gankelaar to hire him. As time progresses, De Gankelaar—a somewhat goofy dude with a bushy mustache and almost grotesque underbite that makes it seem as if he constantly has something in his mouth—becomes his mentor, guardian, and quasi-father-figure. 

As a result of his new job and source of income, Katadreuffe is once again hit with the threat of bankruptcy and in the process soon learns that his father is the one responsible for filing it against him. Katadreuffe also learns that Dreverhaven also came by his mother’s house and attempted to once again ‘propose’ to her marriage, but of course Joba turns it down. Needless to say, Katadreuffe decides to confront his seemingly sadistic estranged daddy and soon learns what kind of man he is after he watches Dreverhaven suicidally enter a neighborhood that has been taken over by armed commie thugs and risks his life attempting to evict the murderous Marxist tenants, thus resulting in him being grazed with a bullet after a young revolutionary shoots him in the face. Ultimately, Katadreuffe is ordered to repay his father over “18 months of misery” with his job earnings, but when the protagonist is finally free of debt and no longer the monetary slave of his father, he feels unfulfilled and decides to ask his progenitor for another chance so he can obtain an education. As the protagonist explains regarding his decision to be once again indebted to his sadistic father, “I wanted to challenge him…and win.” Unfortunately, when the protagonist becomes the office manager of his law office after the old manager Rentenstein (Lou Landré)—an ambiguously Hebraic henchman of Dreverhaven—leaves, his father demands the money back and he is once again forced back to court for bankruptcy. With the extremely altruistic help of his mentor De Gankelaar, Katadreuffe manages to get out of legal trouble, though it is partly the result of Dreverhaven deciding to cease his reign of terror, which makes the protagonist realize regarding his father, “He just wanted to show me who was boss.” 

 In an important subplot that reflects the way the protagonist’s unconventional upbringing has affected his outlook on life, Katadreuffe manages to badly botch what could of been a great love affair with a co-worker named Lorna Te George (Tamar van den Dop). Both Katadreuffe and Lorna are fairly introverted and emotionally unavailable individuals that have a hard time expressing themselves. When the protagonist graduates college, he is given a surprise party by his co-workers where they also present him with a complete 24-volume set of the latest edition of Encyclopedia Britannica. While it is obvious that Lorna wants to talk to Katadreuffe about their mutual feelings for one another, the protagonist ultimately makes it seem like there is no room for a woman in his life after he announces that he is going to law school and then proceeds to give the following speech to his co-employees: “Everyone has certain talents. Each of us has to discover them…and then develop them…so as to make progress. And I’m sure each of us will make that progress…no matter where he’s from. As long as he focuses on one single goal…and is willing to sacrifice everything else. He’ll overcome all setbacks and resistance. As long as that one goal prevails…and he won’t be distracted…and will put everything else aside. That is my true conviction.” Naturally, Lorna is heartbroken and thus quits her job and moves away, with the protagonist only bumping into her years later and discovering that she is now a married mother. Ironically, Katadreuffe’s mother berates him by calling him as stupid as an owl for screwing up his relationship with Lorna despite the fact she is largely to blame for causing his incapacity to form relationships and express love.  Indeed, in terms of his adult ‘character,’ Katadreuffe is just as much the son of his mother as the son of his father as both parents were more or less than same in terms of their (non)emotional brutality.

 Of course, Character concludes just as it starts with Katadreuffe's confrontation with his evil and manipulative miser father Dreverhaven who, somewhat curiously, congratulates his son after he reveals that he is now officially a lawyer. Naturally, the protagonist refuses to shake his estranged father’s hand, with his reason being that his progenitor had worked “against him” during his fairly miserable life, but Dreverhaven denies this and proclaims that he has worked “for him.” Indeed, as Dreverhaven states earlier in the film to Joba in regard to his reason for being so hard on their son, “…I’ll strangle him for nine tenths and the last tenth will make him strong.” Of course, considering that Katadreuffe was largely determined to become successful in life as means to spite his father, Dreverhaven is not all that out of line to say that he worked “for him,” as it is doubtful that the protagonist would have made it to where he did had he been given a steady dose of love and affection during his impoverished upbringing.  In what is ultimately the closest the father and son will ever get to one another in the entire film, Katadreuffe decides to initiate a fight by leaping over a desk and attacking Dreverhaven, but the elder man ultimately beats up his son. Unfortunately for him, Dreverhaven makes the mistake of embracing his seemingly unconscious son after beating up, so Katadreuffe uses the opportunity to sink his teeth into his father's nose, break a chair over his head, and eventually throw an entire bookshelf on top of him. From there, Katadreuffe pulls out a knife that his father previously gave to him and acts if he is going to stab and ultimately murder Dreverhaven, but when the old man begs his son to kill him (notably, throughout the film, the father attempts to coerce his bastard son into killing him with the same exact knife), the protagonist opts out and leaves. As it turns it, Dreverhaven died as a result of a suicide that involved himself stabbing himself in the gut and then subsequently breaking his own neck by leaping from the top floor of his building. Indeed, not only is Katadreuffe cleared of the murder charge, but he also becomes a very rich man (or as his resentful commie comrade Jan states, a “damned capitalist”) after he inherits all of Dreverhaven’s properties and wealth, which the old man willed to the protagonist just before committing suicide. Of course, the biggest surprise for Katadreuffe is that Dreverhaven signed the will with inscription “Father,” thus confirming that the evil old man has finally truly accepted the protagonist as his son. Despite his unwaveringly love for his fiercely frigid mother, Katadreuffe ironically receives his greatest ‘gifts’—both in terms of ‘character’ and material possessions—from the evil estranged father that he only knew from a deep dark distance.

 Notably, as a result of the fact that the Dutch metropolis of Rotterdam has very little of its original pre-WWII buildings and architecture due to being bombed into oblivion by the Germans during the so-called Rotterdam Blitz on May 14, 1940 that resulted in almost the complete destruction of the entire historic city centre, Character was mainly shot in Wrocław, Poland, thus adding to the film’s already Kafkaesque essence. Of course, it is also ironic that the protagonist of the film would have to go through such a struggle to become rich and successful, only for all the property he inherited to have most likely been destroyed about a decade later during the Second World War (in fact, Rotterdam was so thoroughly disseminated by Teutonic bombing that Belarusian-Jewish artist Ossip Zadkine created a sculptor entitled ‘De Verwoeste Stad’ aka ‘The Destroyed City’ in tribute to the metropolis), thus underscoring the meaningless of material wealth in the long run, especially when it comes at the price of love and personal relationships. On top of following in the tradition of works like Paul Verhoeven’s Katie Tippel (1975) aka Keetje Tippel and Guido Pieters’ Ciske the Rat (1984) aka Ciske de Rat in terms of its devastating depiction of the sort of Dickensian horrors that most everyday urban Dutch people faced before the modern era, Character is important in that its reveals the worst of the decidedly ‘Dutch character,’ as a work that is as unflattering as the films of Michael Haneke are to Austrians and Germans in terms of how it depicts the people of the Netherlands.  Indeed, it is no coincidence that the first multinational corporation and first company to issue stock was the Dutch East India Company, just as it is no coincidence that the Netherlands has always produced some of the world’s darkest and most pessimistic artists and writers, with Pieter the Elder Bruegel, Hieronymus Bosch, Joost van den Vondel, Godfried Schalcken, Vincent van Gogh, Gerard Reve, Adriaan Ditvoorst, Willem Frederik Hermans, and Alex van Warmerdam just being a couple examples of the sort of unsettlingly penetrating Dutch cultural creators that have flourished in the tiny Germanic Low Land over the past half a millennium or so. Admittedly, for a notable Dutch film, Character is certainly a shockingly contrived and easy-to-follow work that seems like it was specially tailored for American general audiences, thus making it a worthy work for novices of cinema of the Netherlands, but not something I would describe as a great masterpiece of any sort.  Unfortunately, the film is also plagued by a somewhat cliched reductionist quasi-Marxist interpretation of history where capitalism is depicted as the source of all evil and the police are depicted as proto-fascist thugs and child molesters who brutally beat and killing poor young commie revolutionaries.  Ironically, despite creating a critically and monetarily successful Academy Award winning work for his first feature, director Mike van Diem would go on to focus on directing TV commercials and did not get another opportunity to direct another feature film until rather recently, with his upcoming work De Surprise (2015) aka The Surprise starring Character star Jan Decleir and Georgina Verbaan, which is currently in post-production, being the filmmaker's first feature in almost two decades. Ultimately, van Diem’s debut is the kind of work that gives you a good idea of the difference between mainstream European cinema and that of Hollywood, as it may not be up to par with contemporary Dutch arthouse masterpieces like Adriaan Ditvoorst's De witte waan (1984) aka White Madness, Theo van Gogh's Loos (1989), Alex van Warmerdam's De Noorderlingen (1992) aka The Northerners, Aryan Kaganof's Kyodai Makes The Big Time (1992), and Maartje Seyferth and Victor Nieuwenhuijs' Venus in Furs (1994), but it certainly demonstrates that even the most contrived and formulaic of big budget European movies tend to have more artistic merit, aesthetic eloquence, and cultivation than the most widely critically revered of American blockbusters.

-Ty E

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