Director: Mike Van Diem

All too often, the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film goes to an undistinguished work whose choice remains a mystery to all except the judges. This year, however, even the nominations were fairly sensible, and Dutch director Mike Van Diem’s excellent first feature was a deserving winner. In fact, the Oscar for Character revealed an embarrassing blind spot on the part of festival programmers, most of whom failed to programme, yet alone award, one of the strongest European films of the past year.
Based on a classic 1958 Dutch novel, this impressively mounted historical drama feels like a Charles Dickens story transplanted to Rotterdam n the 1920s. The film opens with a bloodied young lawyer, Katadreuffe (Fedja van Huet), being arrested for the murder of an important and feared citizen, bailiff Dreverhaven (Jan Decleir). The main narrative unfolds in flashback, giving the accused’s version of events leading up to the crime.
It transpires that the lawyer is in fact the illegitimate son of the fearsome bailiff. Katadreuffe’s mother, Joba (Betty Schuurman), was Dreverhaven’s maid and gave in to his advances only once before leaving his employ. A simple but proud woman, Joba refuses to marry Dreverhaven and brings up the young Katadreuffe in poverty. As he ambitiously strives for a better life, Katadreuffe takes out a business loan. The venture is a disaster and he suffers the disgrace of being declared bankrupt. Undeterred, Katadreuffe turns to the law and uses a wily sense of initiative to get himself hired as a clerk in a powerful company. His success is hampered, however, by his history of bankruptcy, and also by the constant, looming presence of his malevolent father, who seems bent on wrecking his son’s career. As Katadreuffe and Dreverhaven seek to destroy each other, their struggle evolves into a compelling story of passion and ambition.
Character works as both a psychological thriller and as a period drama that’s rich in social detail. The material is strong enough for Van Diem to adopt a highly stylized approach without any loss in narrative or dramatic coherence. It helps that the two central performances are outstanding, but what distinguishes the film is its overall design. Van Diem has a highly distinctive visual sense, as evidenced by the film’s striking use of lighting, decors and faces. In what is essentially an Oedipal drama with a social conscience, the figure of the bailiff is an extraordinary creation, at once a vengeful Old Testament patriarch and a sad old man who takes a sadistic pleasure in the exercise of his official duties.
Beautifully shot on carefully chosen locations in Poland, Belgium and Germany as well as several Dutch cities, Character boasts superb production values and unfolds an engrossing story with great style. Van Diem’s direction is totally assured but never flashy, and the film’s striking images and dense soundtrack are of exceptional quality. It’s no surprise that Hollywood was impressed, and no doubt Van Diem’s Oscar will be followed by offers to direct in America.

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