Character (DVD, 2003) Reviews

Character (DVD, 2003)

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The Unloved and the Unloving

Jun 12, 2004 (Updated Feb 4, 2006)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Intense period atmosphere, strong performances, profound issues

Cons:Too much voiceover narrative, obtuse theme, and weak structure as a mystery

The Bottom Line: Recommended for analytical viewers for its profound theme and for others for its rich atmosphere and fine performances

Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved. Helen Keller

The 1997 Academy Award winner in the Best Foreign-Language Film category was an unusual film entitled Character in English translation or Karakter in its original Dutch. Directed by Mike van Diem, this is a film that most viewers seem to like, based on comments and reviews on the internet, but which most acknowledge not understanding especially well. I have yet to come across a single review that provides a cogent analysis of what this film has to say. Usually that means that a film is in trouble, but somehow viewers seem to admire this film for its production values despite being baffled by it. Let’s see if we can figure out why.

Historical Background: This film was based on a popular Dutch novel written in 1938 by Ferdinand Bordewijk. Both the novel and the film are Dickens-like in several respects. The story is set in Rotterdam in the 1920's in an atmosphere of squalor and poverty and examines the psychological effects of being a boy growing up without love and in difficult conditions.

The Story: On the surface, the film presents itself as something of a murder mystery or thriller, opening with a confrontation between a young man and an older man that may or may not have culminated in murder. The young man yells at the older one, “Today I have been made a lawyer. You no longer exist for me! You have worked against me all my life.” The older man turns his back, then mutters, “Or FOR you!” This seemingly insignificant interchange defines the essential subject matter of the film as we shall see below. The young man then stomps out but soon returns on the run and literally flies through the air in an aggressive assault on the older man. The story then cuts away before we can see the outcome of that violent confrontation. Next, we see the young man leaving the building – a kind of warehouse – his face badly bloodied. He is observed by various workers as he exits. Later, a police assault team shows up at the young man’s dwelling and he is arrested for the murder of Mr. Dreverhaven. He is taken to the police station for questioning. This much provides the framing for the film. The rest of the story is provided in the form of flashbacks as the young man under arrest, Jacob Katadreuffe, tells his story to the police inspector.

We learn that the murdered man, Dreverhaven (Jan Decleir), was a widely despised man – a bailiff whose job was to evict poor families unable to pay their rent. This was a man who not only performed a cruel task but did so with relish and verve. Dreverhaven was also a money lender, and took no less delight in bankrupting the recipients of his loans. Dreverhaven was in every respect a hard, cruel, exacting kind of man. Years ago, Dreverhaven had a housekeeper named Joba (Betty Shuurman) – an extremely reticent woman and reserved. One night – one night only – Dreverhaven had entered her room. That single visit had led to Joba’s pregnancy. Joba informed Dreverhaven of her pregnancy and resigned from his employ, presumably out of feelings of disgrace. Dreverhaven had not only offered to marry her but had, for the next thirteen months, sent an offer of money and a note reading “When is our wedding?” to his former housekeeper. Each time she refused to accept either the money or the offer, finally returning the last with a sternly written message, “I shall never marry you.”

Joba’s child was named Jacob – Jacob Katadreuffe – the young man now in police custody. The man he is accused of murdering was thus his biological father. Jacob’s life as a boy had been difficult. He never knew who his father was. All his mother would tell Jacob was that they had no need of him [the father]. Jacob grew up under continuous taunts from the other children that he was a bastard child. His mother was also subjected to slurs when in public. Jacob’s mother was little comfort for the boy, as well. She rarely spoke to him and showed him no warmth or affection. In the absence of love, the plucky boy turned his attention to books, devouring the contents of a partial set of encyclopedias that ran from A to T. He became determined to prove to himself and his mother that he could get ahead in the world on his own.

His first such effort consisted of purchasing a small store. To do so, he had to have money and, without collateral, no legitimate bank would give him the time of day. Finally, he was able to borrow money from a shady loan-sharking operation. Jacob’s career as a businessman was short-lived, however, as he quickly discovered that the so-called inventory he had purchased consisted of empty boxes. By then, the seller of the business was nowhere to be found. Soon, Jacob received a letter from a lawyer requesting his bankruptcy. The only practical consequence of bankruptcy for Jacob was that he would lose his books – his only property. There was also an emotional impact, however. Jacob soon learned that the credit company that had provided the loan on which he had defaulted and which now demanded his bankruptcy was owned by his own father. His own father seemed bent on his humiliation and destruction. Another important consequence of the bankruptcy process, however, was that it brought him into contact with a bustling legal office. Jacob was thunder struck. He knew at once that this was his calling, his aspiration in life – to work in a legal office and climb as far up the ladder of success as he could. He could even envision his nameplate beside the front door amongst those of the firm’s other attorneys.

Jacob, by his determination and ambition, had soon talked his way into a job as a clerk in the busy law firm. His boss and mentor became a man named De Gankelaar (Victor Low), an intelligent, skilled, and compassionate man with a huge underbite. Under De Gankelaar’s tutelage and by his own considerable drive, Jacob begins to work his way into increasing responsibility. He becomes office manager, after a while, and also undertakes the study of law. He also comes into contact with a lovely fellow clerk, Lorna Te George (Tamar van den Dop). She is friendly to him and shows signs of warmth and interest in him. She urges him to temper, a bit, his drive to study and get ahead; to take some time to enjoy life. He is attracted to her, yet remains single-minded in his determination to prove himself. He is no longer driven primarily by the need to prove himself to his mother. He is now obsessed with the need to overcome what he views as obstacles thrown in his path by his father. He will not let the old man defeat him! He even takes out a second loan from his father’s credit company, even though it contains the proviso that the company can demand repayment of the full loan at any time, simply to prove that he is not afraid of the old man. Later, the loan is recalled three days before Jacob is to take his law exam. Did that threaten his success or spur him on?

Jacob encounters Lorna on a beach, where she has gone for recreation and he only to study. She is with another man. Jacob turns away from her, at the beach and later at the office, without so much as inquiring whether the other man was important to her. Lorna organizes an office party in Jacob’s honor when he receives his diploma. He offers a speech in which he preaches about the importance of being single-minded and avoiding all distractions. Lorna gets the message and is heartbroken. Months later, he encounters Lorna by chance. She is now married with a baby. He tells her that he has never forgotten her and will never marry anyone else. Jacob’s mother, observing this interchange and the obviously loving woman that Jacob let get away, tells him that he is an even bigger ass than she had realized.

Jacob is officially certified as a lawyer but walks right past his newly hung nameplate without so much as noticing it. His eyes are still focused on what lies ahead, not what he has thus far accomplished. It is time, he feels, to confront his father with his success – to gloat that he has made it despite what he perceives as his father’s efforts to bring him to ruination. Now the film has come full circle back to the opening segment: the confrontation between Jacob and Dreverhaven for which Jacob is under arrest.

Themes: Character is a film that raises profound questions without specifying its own answers to those questions. Let’s start with the meaning of the title: Character. This is not, as some reviewers suggest, a character study – not of Jacob nor of Dreverhaven. None of the major characters in this story – Jacob, Dreverhaven, and Joba – are particularly realistic portrayals of complete human beings. They are caricatures more than characters. Conducting a character study of any of them would be about as meaningful as studying the psychology of cartoon characters like Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse. The meaning of “character” that the title invokes is character as a personal quality – as in “drink this, it’ll build character.” What this film is about (and it is about it in a rather profound way) is two different views of how character is built – two different philosophies of life and childrearing. One of these constructs could be generally described by such terms as austerity, discipline, tough-love, sacrifice, duty, or survival-of-the-fittest. The other covers such notions as love, caring, support, affection, reward, and recreation. The strategy of the film is to present the first of these constructs in full-flower – in its most exaggerated form – but to provide just enough hint of the alternative to provide a basis of comparison. The film does not ultimately argue which is preferable to the other. It simply illustrates where the austerity option leads in its logical extreme. Each viewer will decide based on their own predilections whether the consequences of the austerity philosophy are desirable or wicked.

What happens to a person who, as a child, grows up without love? Certainly that is Jacob’s case. His mother is unfeeling and non-communicative. His father is absent and when he does impinge of Jacob’s life, unbending and hateful. When people grow up in such circumstances, one of two things happens: they sink or they swim. Some wither into depression, psychosis, poverty, prison, or death. Others, by whatever means, pick themselves up by their bootstraps and become single-minded in their determination to not merely survive, but to get ahead and to overcome their shame and every obstacle in their path. Some of the sickest and most destitute individuals in human society are ones who grew up without love; so too are some of the most successful. Consider this quote from Napoleon Hill: “The strongest oak tree of the forest is not the one that is protected from the storm and hidden from the sun. It’s the one that stands in the open where it is compelled to struggle for its existence against the winds and rains and the scorching sun.” Or, review the Helen Keller quote at the opening of this review or Nietsche’s great line: “that which does not kill makes you stronger.” Or try this one offered by William Penn: “No pain, no palm; no thorns, no throne; no gall, no glory; no cross, no crown."

Dreverhaven is a man of this philosophy. His motto is “law without compassion.” He likely believes that he serves society when he has poor families evicted by forcing the dregs of society to either work harder to support themselves or perish. He likely believes that he is doing his son a favor by his harsh, uncompassionate actions. It matters little to Dreverhaven which way the exercise turns out: he’ll either make the kid stronger or destroy him and either way the world will be a better place! Dreverhaven says to Joba, “I’ll strangle him for nine-tenths, and the last tenth will make him strong. Or, maybe I’ll strangle him for the last tenth as well.”

As much as Jacob despises his parents, he is sadly doomed to follow in their way. All three are wedded to the concept of self-denial, self-debasement, and a pleasureless existence. Joba refuses marriage to Dreverhaven, raises her son alone and in poverty, but proudly announces to Dreverhaven that there has never been another. She has denied herself every opportunity of pleasure, perhaps as self-inflicted punishment for her one night of shame with Dreverhaven. Dreverhaven, who could have moved on to the companionship of another woman, uses Joba’s rejection as motivation for his cruel work in life. Now, Jacob will repeat the same pattern. He has already announced that he will never marry and will instead use the remembrance of Lorna (who he hardly knew and never really gave a chance) as a source of pain to motivate him as he works to get to the top. Dreverhaven, who had never had one kind word for his son, nevertheless left Jacob his entire fortune – which was considerable. It is telling that the note advising Jacob of this action was signed “father.” Dreverhaven’s entire identity as a person and a father consisted of what he had accumulated by way of wealth and success. In passing that on to Jacob, he was, in his view, fulfilling his entire duty as “father.” A parent’s job, in this philosophy, is to set intractable expectations, goals, and rules and then let the chips fall where they may. Either produce a mighty oak or kill the weakling off.

The dichotomy between these two philosophies – sink-or-swim austerity vs. affectionate care – can be observed in every level and aspect of human social discourse. Politically, it manifests as capitalism vs. socialism or, in America, as Republican philosophy vs. Liberal Democratic philosophy. In Character the Communists seek to protect the poor, to ease their burden – to care for them, in effect. Dreverhaven, the Fascists, and the law, in this film, represent the unbending and compassionless survival-of-the-fittest approach. In religion, "love-thy-neighbor" captures the philosophy of caring, but, by in large, Christianity is built on the alternative viewpoint, from Christ’s suffering for us all, to the austerity and self-denial of Puritanism, to the flagellation of Catholicism, to the celibacy of Priests, to masturbation as a sin, and so on right down the line. Humanism, by contrast, is built mainly on the foundation of caring – supportive loving care for one another. There are those who contend that love is the real path to building character: “Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair but manifestations of strength and resolution.” (Kahlil Gibran). While we might all agree with Goethe that “character develops itself in the stream of life,” the question remains whether that stream must be one of vigorous, even violent, current or whether character can develop as well in a gentle brook.

Although the film Character does not answer that question explicitly, I think that the wise answer is implied. Most viewers will feel that Jacob’s life has become sadly misdirected. Like his mother, most of us feel that Jacob was a total idiot for by-passing the opportunity for the happiness that comes from love – which was his for the asking with Lorna. Jacob might not become as ruthless as his father, but he is headed for a life of striving for prestige and the outward trappings of success. He has gone from being unloved to incapable of loving. History is replete with successful men (and a smaller number of similarly motivated women) who were compassionless, unfeeling, and sometimes wicked. The Stalins and Hitlers of the world are cut from this cloth. They are driven to power and glory but without humanity or the capacity to love their fellow beings. Stalin’s childhood was very much like Jacob’s. That old patriarchal male model of building character – boot camp, tough love, austerity, self-denial, discipline – may sometimes be an advantage for surviving in this dog-eat-dog world we populate, but it can also be deadly to the human psyche. It is highly likely, by the way, that Dreverhaven was brought up in the same manner himself.

Production Values: Given the complexity of this film’s message and the inability of most viewers and critics to fully engage it, it is apparent that most of the praise lavished on this film is based primarily on its considerable production values. The period sets and costumes are extraordinary. The mood established by the cinematography is one of a dimly lit, Dickensian sprawl. There is a leaden and slightly surreal feel to it all, adding to the sense that these are caricatures rather than characters. The entire mise-en-scène is impressive and sometimes more engrossing than the story.

Fedja Van Huet is outstanding in the lead role as Jacob Katadreuffe. As I watched the film, I saw quite a resemblance between Van Huet and Robert Downey Jr. I was disappointed to see that two other reviewers already noted the same resemblance, thus depriving me of an original observation. Jan Decleir is impressively sinister – almost Peter Lorre quality – as Dreverhaven. He also appeared in Antonia’s Line (1995). Tamar van den Dop is quite lovely as Lorna.

One big weakness of this film, in my view, is the excessive dependence on voice-over narrative, partly necessitated by the flashback format. It is really quite oppressive. Much of what we learn about the motivations of these characters is directly spelled out by the narrator rather than being revealed through dialog and action. The early part of the film sometimes feels like we’re reading a picture book. The story in almost entirely in the narration and merely illustrated through the images. It is not good filmmaking technique.

Bottom-Line: This is a film with both great strengths and substantial weaknesses. On the positive side, it raises a profound philosophical issue – the kind that only Ingmar Bergman and a few other filmmakers dare to address. The casting is excellent and the sets and costumes make it highly successful in its period-piece atmosphere. It fails, however, by its excessive dependence of narration. As a mystery, it’s not all that engaging, simply laying out the question of whether a murder has occurred and then answering it by an extended narration. There is no effort expended on uncovering the truth – it is simply recounted by one person. Finally, the profound theme which is the centerpiece of the film appears to be mostly lost of the majority of viewers. They know that something important has been revealed – they’re just not sure what. This is an ambitious film which succeeds marvelously in some respects but also falls flat on its face. I’m going to give it four stars out of respect for how much it attempts, though it probably deserves no more than 3.5. Character is in Dutch with English subtitles. It has a running time of 124 minutes and is rated “R.”

You might want to check out these other excellent films from Netherlands:

Antonia’s Line
The Assault
Soldier of Orange
The Vanishing

Recommend this product? Yes

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