Thursday, April 23, 1998
For a country famous for its chocolate, legalized prostitution, and other pleasures of the flesh, the Dutch film Character, this year''s Academy Award winner for Best Foreign film, is a surprisingly passionless affair.
Envisioned by writer/director Mike van Diem as a hybrid of a Charles Dickens tale filtered through the tormented sensibility of Franz Kafka, Character tells the story of a tyrannical city official, and his illegitimate son''s struggle to free himself from his father''s oppressive control.
Set in Rotterdam in the 1920s, Character is very much a period film that is rich in historic detail and atmosphere. Much of the story is set against the emerging Socialist movement of the 1920s, with the father, Dreverhaven (Jan Decleir), embodying the evils of bourgeois capitalism and the son, Katadreuffe (Fedja van Huet), the aspirations of the working poor.
Despite the film''s broader social implications, van Diem remains focused on the antagonism between father and son. Character is told in a series of flashbacks by Katadreuffe, who is being interrogated for suspicion of murdering his father.
It is quickly revealed that Katadreuffe is the illegitimate offspring of Dreverhaven and his housekeeper, a stern and emotionally aloof woman who leaves Dreverhaven''s employ soon after becoming pregnant, spurning repeated marriage proposals by Dreverhaven.
Katadreuffe eventually learns his father''s identity, and when he is arrested after being wrongly implicated in a petty street crime, he names Dreverhaven as his father in order to save himself. Dreverhaven comes to the jail, but refuses to acknowledge Katadreuffe as his son.
This denial of patrimony sets off the film''s central dynamic as Katadreuffe tries to better his lot in life while hounded by his father over debts he accumulated in a failed business venture. The role Katadreuffe''s debts play in the antagonism toward his father are rather arcane, and it is never made exactly clear why the debts represent such a stumbling block to Katadreuffe''s future.
What is most perplexing, and never satisfactorily resolved by van Diem, is whether Dreverhaven has tormented his son as a form of retribution against the woman who scorned his marriage proposals, or whether he believes that by creating adversity in his son''s life, he is forging a stronger person better able to survive in the world.
For Katadreuffe, there is no question concerning his vehement animosity toward his father, which explodes at the final confrontation that opens and closes the film. Nevertheless, Katadreuffe''s anger never carries over to other areas in his life. He may be ambitious, but he seems overly docile and eager to please given the obstacles his father has set in his career path.
In creating a film whose central theme is the struggle between emotionally repressed individuals, van Diem, by staying so true to his characters, fails to create a fully engaging story. For filmgoers who aren''t steeped in Dutch culture, it is difficult to know the degree to which such an emotionally repressive atmosphere is or was reflective of Dutch society.
Despite its minor shortcomings, Character is full of fine performances and interesting characters. Jan Decleir in particular is especially powerful as the stoop-shouldered, oddly-coiffed monster Dreverhaven, who relishes evicting the poor and feeble from their tenements as much as he does tormenting his son.
The claustrophobia of working-class lives and the chasm between privileged and proletariat is precisely rendered by van Diem, who employs a fluid directorial style and moody, beautiful lighting throughout the film.
If Character has one operative theme, it is the well-worn notion espoused by Nietzsche that adversity, if it doesn''t kill us, can make us stronger. Unfortunately, strength without insight is of limited value. Despite the challenges and tremendous emotional upheavals in their lives, none of the principals in Character seem to arrive at any central truth about their lives.
By failing to offer such insight into the relationship between the father and son, Character is likely to leave audiences with too many questions and too few answers about whether tough love is any kind of love at all.