A Dickensian social drama with Horror film flourishes, Character won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1997, and yet still seems to be a little-known quantity. Director Mike van Diem, who strangely enough hasn’t made a film since, executes his period vision with terrific, inventive fluency, refusing to let his narrative slow and settle into literary adaptation stuffiness (it’s based on a linked novel and short story by reputed Dutch novelist Ferdinand Bordewijk). Young Katadreuffe (Fedja van Huêt) is a bright young go-getter battling the prolific dampeners of social mobility in 1920s Holland, whilst engaged in a furious psychic and fiscal conflict with his father, Dreverhaven (Jan Decleir). That pudgy beast is a ruthless capitalist loan shark and bailiff, who seems bent on playing a mysterious game of cat and mouse with his illegitimate, hardly acknowledged progeny, the result of an affair with his taciturn former secretary Joba (Betty Schuurman), who chose a life of drab poverty rather than countenance marrying him.
In supervising her son’s growth, Joba has seemed fearful of his becoming a man like his father, but her chilly demeanour can’t prevent him becoming a gifted, yearning, but emotionally closed-off individual, who badly fouls up his romance with fellow employee in a law office, Lorna (Tamar van den Dop), even whilst he triumphs against worldly odds; worse yet, he keeps a lid on a simmering violent streak that only occasionally but memorably reveals itself. Decleir’s Dreverhaven stalks through the landscape like an expressionist monster, whose lack of fear of physical and moral punishment seems sourced initially in a lack of human empathy, but he finally proves a self-loathing, sado-masochistic Caliban. Bookend scenes reveal Katadreuffe being grilled by police over his father’s apparent murder, and his long journey to manhood does indeed lead to a bristling scene of intergenerational violence, and the percolating metaphor for the struggle of old and new societies is personified with real force. The story manages to be both highly dramatic and yet ambiguous in the right ways, refusing to solve or explicate all the problems of character, that eponymous concern, whilst asking what the word means, both in terms of inner resolve before a foreboding society, and in terms of family, in the difficulties of understanding even the hearts of those so vitally close to us. The core performances are superb, and Victor Löw does great work with a gift of a role, as De Gankelaar, Katadreuffe’s mumbling but sympathetic mentor.