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Character Assassination

[whitespace] Character
Victor Arnolds

Dance Fever: Fedja van Huet (left), Victor Löw and Tamar van den Dop negotiate a close encounter in Mike van Diem's 'Character.'

Was Darth Vader Dutch? Director Mike van Diem talks about the darkness at the heart of his film

By Richard von Busack

A DUEL of insane stubbornness between father and son is the essence of Mike van Diem's Character (Karakter). This expressionist tale puts a reverse spin on America's favorite story: a young lad's rise from poverty to success. The movie is like Dostoyevsky collaborating with Horatio Alger.

Director van Diem, who won this year's Academy Award for best foreign film, has assembled a fantasy version of 1920s Rotterdam; the real city was bombed flat and burned by Hitler in WWII. Out of bits of Poland, Antwerp, Ghent and Hamburg, Van Diem has created an ominous nighttime town that presages the Nazi occupation. The dimmed lighting, reminiscent of a blackout, seems to anticipate an imminent bombing raid.

The chief power in this dark Rotterdam is the rancorous bailiff Dreverhaven (Jan Decleir). The problem with British subtitles on a foreign film--and we do get a lot of films after the Brits have subtitled them--is that much of the slang and terminology doesn't translate. What the British call a bailiff is what Americans would call a marshal.

In this case, Dreverhaven is a professional evictor. The much-loathed official, who lives in a towering brick castle, is the father of the illegitimate hero, Katadreuffe (Fedja van Huet). Dreverhaven works behind the scenes to squeeze his son through adversity into greatness.

At one point, the bailiff vows, "I'll strangle him for nine-tenths, and the last tenth will make him stronger." Van Diem never explains the malice the father has toward his son; is it that he still bears a grudge against the boy's mother, Joba (Betty Schuurman), who refused to marry Dreverhaven after he impregnated her? His marriage proposal, a note delivered by a flunky, read in block letters: WHEN IS OUR WEDDING?

It's tangy melodrama, but in an interview with van Diem, it's clear that he thinks of the mechanical construction of his debut film in terms of popular Westerns and cop movies. Watching Dreverhaven try to warp his son is perhaps most suggestive of the film that most under 30 consider the prime example of father/son conflict. Could Darth Vader have been Dutch? Still, the sensibilities of Character seem to hark back to expressionism; the torchlit mob of Dreverhaven's victims, storming the castle to confront the evil bailiff, is as close to the spirit of James Whale and Fritz Lang as we get onscreen nowadays.

At our interview, van Diem is still high from his Oscar victory two days earlier. Remember him? Van Diem was the one who leapt for joy on the stage as Sharon Stone handed him the prize. Not wanting to let the award out his sight, he brought it to the interview.

It stood on the table next to his lunch, sacked and hooded in a pair of velvet bags. He nodded at me, knowing what I was about to ask. I gave the trophy an exploratory heft. Very handy indeed, with a nice balance to it. I think it weighs about five pounds.

"I was looking for a TV-style doctor's bag," he said between mouthfuls, "something that would open up sideways, but I couldn't find one. So I went out looking for a high-end liquor store near the hotel, to find a cloth wine bag. I couldn't find the liquor store, so I walked into a shoe store to ask directions. They saw the Oscar in my hand and recognized me and said, we'll give you these two shoe bags free."

"Did you get any sleep since Oscar night?"

"First night, I got three hours," van Diem said, "and I woke up with a serious hangover, a splitting headache. Woke up smiling despite all that. People kept stopping me on the street in Los Angeles all the next day; I think 150 people asked to have their picture taken with it. I guess you're not to supposed to carry the Oscar around with you, but, hey, I'm Dutch, I don't know the rules."


I WAS SURPRISED when van Diem won, though I was rooting for him. I would have put my money on Four Days in September. The film is political, in an apolitical sort of way, and its director, Bruno Barreto, is married to a Hollywood star, Amy Irving.

Still, van Diem said he thought winning was possible. "A couple of days after the nomination, Variety put the front-burner stamp on Character, which caused an instant victorious mood in the Netherlands. Some people thought that it was going to be a landslide victory. But you never know. Ten minutes before the award, the Germans thought they had it in the bag. They were sitting one row in front of us, saying, 'We're going to go onstage in a minute, all four of us. Would you mind holding our bags?' But then it was us who won instead."

Germany is where van Diem found Castle Dreverhaven, in real life a caviar warehouse in an unbombed section of Hamburg harbor. "It was built by the British. I guess they weren't eager to bomb the part of the harbor they constructed themselves. We gave the continuity people work to do--an actor would walk into a building in Antwerp, go up a staircase we'd found in Poland, and end up in an attic overlooking the real Rotterdam."

According to van Diem, the film is based on an intractable novel. "The author, Ferdinand Bordewijk, used to say, 'I'm a lawyer first and a writer second.' He's most known for Character and one brilliant short novella titled Bint. What you see in the 1938 book is almost Bordewijk's own story. Whereas my film is about a young man's desperate attempt to escape from his upbringing." It's a very loose adaptation, told in flashback in a confessional mode van Diem says he thought of after watching a similar trick in Amadeus.

"Character is very unlikely material for a movie," van Diem said. "The book was obligatory reading for every Dutch high school student from the '40s to the '70s, and it was kind of considered a rather dull book. Why? It had these spectacular characters, but it simply wasn't much of a story. If you asked a literate Dutch person to tell you about the story, he'd say, 'All that I can remember is that there's a whole lot of filing for bankruptcy in it.'

"The ending was not satisfying, no final conflict between the father and son. So we came up with a murder/mystery superstructure and put that upfront on the film. Our film did have final conflict, and that is actually what made the book into the film. There's the Dirty Harry scene, for example: the early Clint Eastwood would always have a scene to show you that Clint was Clint--the 'Make my day' scene or 'Do you feel lucky, punk?' That scene where Dreverhaven comes across a dying woman who only needs an hour to die peacefully ... and he evicts her, bed and all: I had to come up with scenes like that to make it into a movie."

But van Diem distances himself from the subtext of class struggle in the film, even though the hero becomes a demi-Communist for a time. "Naturally the world 'communism' waves a red flag here in America," Van Diem offered. "The story is the epic conflict of a father and son. The lower classes in the '20s rising up to authority is only a backdrop to the conflict. What made it into perhaps an interesting film is us enhancing the father's character, exploring his dark side, the flirtation with the darkest things imaginable--things that are impossible to verbalize but which we have tried to visualize onscreen. And I think some of the best scenes in the film deal with that."

The darkness of Character is seductive, but it's a single-minded film, incurious despite the depths of its moods. Since Dreverhaven's rigidity is never explained, he becomes a symbol of paternal repression--and this symbolism never makes it past a two-dimensional level.

That's the problem with expressionism. It's rousing to see your worst fears of urban life caricatured and made monstrous. The problem is that such wild imagery rarely transcends caricature. It certainly doesn't here. Still, van Diem didn't make the film too oppressive. The John Cleese-like comedy of Victor Löw lightens the film; aided by a prosthetic bulldog jaw, Löw plays a gruff but kindly lawyer named De Gankelaar who befriends the hero.

What's interesting about Character, besides its one-of-a-kind look, is not the homely old moral that our wishes come back to haunt us and money is not for poor people--there's something more refreshing. The film suggests that the search for the father--the spine of movies from Days of Thunder to Amistad--can sometimes lead to repulsion and ghastly trouble.

Character (Rated R; 114 minutes), directed and written by Mike van Diem, starring Fedja van Huet, Jan Decleir and Betty Schuurman.

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From the April 16-22, 1998 issue of Metro.

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