Initially engrossing, Mike van Diem’s Karakter, based on Ferdinand Bordewijk’s 1938 novel, starts petering out about mid-way and leaves the viewer with almost nothing by the end. Like another Dutch film that also won the foreign-language film Oscar, De aanslag (The Assault, 1986), directed by Fons Rademakers, it conjures a sense of mystery that the thin narrative fails to support, along with a brooding atmosphere. Indeed, Karakter is among the lamest films from the Netherlands that I’ve encountered. In addition to the Oscar, it won best film prizes at the A.F.I., Nederlands, and Paris festivals.
Under arrest for the stabbing murder of Dreverhaven, a bailiff who viciously abuses the poor and embodies soulless, cold-blooded capitalism, the protagonist, Jacob Katadreuffe, recounts his life history to the police, beginning with Dreverhaven’s rape of housekeeper Joba (Betty Schuurman, deeply affecting), Jacob’s mother, who refuses to marry her rapist, choosing to live alone with her son, and later (without romance) with a sympathetic Communist boarder, Jan Maan, and spurning a lifetime of proposals from Dreverhaven. Flashbacks of Jacob’s homelife, with his voiceover, begin in the Dickensian squalor of early twentieth-century Rotterdam.
When as an older boy he finds employment as a clerk in a grand law office, Jacob announces, “I knew I had found my destiny.” Indeed, fateful coincidence—also Dickensian—attends this tale, some of it upsetting, some of it serendipitous. Jacob makes becoming a lawyer himself his goal, sacrificing all else, including romance, to his achieving this. Simultaneous with this are his efforts to subdue the dogging shadow of his father, whom he despises and from whom he has always been estranged, and who seems to take sadistic pleasure in enacting the role of his nemesis. His performance as Dreverhaven won Jan Decleir several best actor prizes, but it never makes clear the extent to which Dreverhaven’s ownership of slum properties, extension of tricky loans, and heartless, routine evictions warped his feelings for his son. I am afraid that the film provides insufficient sociopolitical context for us to know what to make of the fact that Dreverhaven leaves Jacob his properties. Is Dreverhaven from his grave—where Jacob, we learn, did not put him—taunting the boy, to wit, “Let’s just see what you become”?
Karakter is the least commendable kind of film, an example of visual storytelling. It is also hopelessly melodramatic. Its beautiful cinematography, in grim, dusky color, though, is by Rogier Stoffers, who has since lent even more stunning cinematography to Sergei Bodrov’s Mongol (2007).
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