What might be murder erupts from lifelong battle of wills in Oscar winning film
By Jimmy Gillman
What might be a brutal murder erupts from a lifelong battle of wills between a boy and the father he never knew in “Character,” the 1998 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film. Yes, that means it’s subtitled. But before you click away because of it, consider the intense, mysterious and moving motion picture you’d be missing.
True, not every Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film is a classic, though the same can be said of the other Best Picture winners. But it’s also true that not a single film from either category could be termed a loser, nearly all of them appropriately well above average.
Director Mike van Diem’s “Character” is no exception; an extremely well-crafted film that packs an emotional punch you’ll not soon forget in a 20th century tale of vengeance, pride, prejudice and unrequited love put forth in Dickensian fashion without any of the excess that sometimes invaded the great author’s stories.
Based on the book by Ferdinand Bordewijk, “Character” opens with a commanding title sequence that ends in the off-screen death of a powerful and roundly despised man known as Dreverhaven at what appears to be the hands of someone with an important connection to him. That young man now stands before the police charged with his murder, and it is by way of his interrogation that the story unfolds in flashback.
Dreverhaven was the Bailiff of Rotterdam, a man with many enemies. The accused is Jacob Willem, who we quickly learn is his illegitimate son, born to Dreverhaven’s former housekeeper, who left his employ at the news of her pregnancy.
In one of the film’s many ironies, Dreverhaven wanted to marry the woman, but she flatly refused, choosing instead a life of austerity and social outcast for herself and the boy. For more than a year the bailiff persisted, sending her a proposal of marriage on the first of every month, but the letters were always returned unopened.
It’s while Jacob was still young that he first got a glimpse of Dreverhaven, who a few years later he would come to suspect as his father. And from that point forth, the boy focuses all his pain and suffering and that of his mother’s on the man, and literally dedicates his life to besting him.
What shape those efforts take and whether or not it leads to Dreverhaven’s death are the central mysteries that maintain the film’s high level of intrigue. But equally compelling are Dreverhaven and Willem’s individual stories, whose paths periodically intersect in quietly pitched and fiercely waged contests.
It’s a terrific story, with lots of twists and revelations, surprises and misdirection, made with an eye towards entertainment to attract American audiences. The pace never slackens and the tone is tense and moody in a way that holds the attention to the last, making “Character” well worth the simple effort required with subtitles.