6 October 2001 | Tom Murray
A Very Subtle Character Study
How is it possible for a boy, whose parents are devoid of normal humanity, to grow up to be loved and respected? The film, Character, presents a credible demonstration. It has the darkness of Ingmar Bergman or Charles Dickens, is slow-moving, thoroughly engrossing and it left me emotionally drained, which always elicits a high rating from me.
Dreverhaven is apparently an evil man: a bailiff who is quite willing to evict people in a terrible storm. He embodies two Nietzschean concepts: 1.
the will to power (he entered into power struggles with anyone whom he felt he could dominate) and 2. that a life becomes better by becoming stronger through adversity (he did everything in his power to bring adversity to his son, believing that that would strengthen him--and in many ways it did). His internal struggle between the will to power over his son and his desire to strengthen him is the prime mover of the film; his son's reactions to that are the core. Dreverhaven is also totally fearless; the question arises whether it is caused by bravery or just being tired of life.
The film opens with his son, Jacob Katadreuffe (Fedja van Huêt), coming home, all bloody, only to be arrested as a suspect in the murder of Dreverhaven. He then tells the two interrogators a most amazing story. Since he is describing his own life, one might suspect that he is embellishing the story in his own favour but I believe that he was totally candid.
The story is too complex to dwell on but certain aspects must be mentioned. Jacob's mother, Joba (Betty Schuurman), was a servant to Dreverhaven. On one and only one occasion he may have raped her: it is not made clear if she resisted. As soon as she discovered that she was pregnant, she left him and tried to sever all ties. For a long time, however, Dreverhaven repeatedly proposed marriage and was refused. His motivation is ambiguous (propriety or affection) and Joba was apparently determined not to allow Dreverhaven to beat her in a power struggle.
Because of his Mother's silence, young Jacob believed that she did not like him and, being a pariah because he was illegitimate, he turned to books for solace. Through this he developed a love of learning and a willingness to work hard and he advanced rapidly in a law firm, winning the respect and admiration of most of his colleagues, especially De Gankelaar (Victor Löw), who hired him. De Gankelaar, a man with a huge underbite and a heart to match, became Jacob's mentor, adviser and protector.
Denied access to his son, Dreverhaven began a game of terror against Jacob through legal channels.
The film is a study of character and characters. Their motivations are subtly hidden by consistent and superb acting. In my attempts to understand this dysfunctional family (if it can be called a family) I was forced to think. The slow movement allowed time for that. I want to see the film again, expecting that each viewing will bring a closer understanding. Even the evil Dreverhaven was more an object of pity rather than despicable; his actions were caused more by ignorance of human sensitivities, a dogmatic respect for the law and an unusual philosophy rather than by malice. The film is open-ended. What will Jacob do with the rest of his life?