Dutch cinema: Development of Karakter

Dutch cinema: Development of Karakter

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Graham Jackson, whose mission as a newcomer in the Netherlands is to unravel Dutch culture, launches a fortnightly cultural blog with a look at the award-winning Dutch film Karakter (1997).

Discovering the rich cinematic heritage of the Netherlands is just one intriguing aspect of moving to the country.

My knowledge of Dutch cinema had been rather restricted to a few obvious names; Paul Verhoeven, for the trashy directorial brilliance of Robocop and Starship Troopers, Rutger Hauer for his villainous roles in Blade Runner and The Hitcher, and the controversy surrounding the late Theo van Gogh.  

Upon arrival, I had intended to unearth some unknown classics of home-grown cinema in the hope of gaining a greater understanding of the people, their characteristics and culture.  Yet I’d naively dismissed Dutch cinema as insignificant at best, put off by the recent success of the incredibly tedious Alles Is Liefde.  Of course, a few hours of online investigation later and I had swiftly compiled a list of essential Dutch films, one that should last me for a considerable period of time.  Karakter (1997) was the last film added to the list—a film which I inadvertently stumbled upon—so I decided to begin from there.


KarakterConvincingly adapted from Ferdinand Bordewijk’s short story Dreverhaven en Katadreuffe and his 1938 novel Karakter, director Mike van Diem recreates 1920s era Rotterdam with a vivid eye for period detail and a sweeping cinematic grace.  The city is rain drenched, icy cold, socially oppressive and unstable.  Aggression is inherent in every facet of this disharmonised corner of society, from the threat of police action and eviction, to the rise of the communist movement and the continued political instability of Europe.  This is a fractured city on the verge of civil unrest and inevitable turmoil.  

The film opens with the arrest of J.W. Katadreuffe (Fedja van Huêt), a young and ambitious lawyer, on suspicion of the murder of notorious bailiff A.B. Dreverhaven (Jan Declair).  From here onwards, the grandiose narrative unfolds largely through flashbacks as, during his interrogation, Katadreuffe recounts the entirety of his entangled relationship with the deceased.  Whilst fundamentally charting a mere rags to riches tale and the inevitable fall from grace that follows, this absorbing drams veers confidently away from cinematic cliché and remains ambiguous until its conclusion.  

Principal themes surround the construct of the family and the extremes to which individuals will go to exert influence over other family members.  Just how far should a parent go in raising a child—to influence or interfere, protect or isolate?  The desires which drive an individual to the point of blind ambition are also significant.  Such single mindedness ultimately works to destroy a person—Katadreuffe’s love for Lorna Te George (Tamar van den Dop) threatens to remain unrequited—and his determination to challenge and overpower his distant yet controlling father results in his own implosion and a spiralling descent into murderous, uncontrollable rage.

The film’s thunderous and brooding atmosphere is magnificently enhanced by several standout performances.  Van Huêt convincingly portrays the protagonist who, fuelled by his ideals of liberation and independence, is determined to rise out of the squalor and make something of himself.  Betty Schuurman excels as Joba, his cold and loveless mother, her character nonetheless intending to do right by her son.  Victor Löw displays awesome theatricality as the jaw-jutting De Gankelar, who takes Katadreuffe under his wing.  Whilst such extrovert traits offer potential for light relief, he is also the source of guidance and genuine compassion for his increasingly alienated protégé.  

Dreverhaven en Katadreuffe (Jan Decleir en Fedja Huet) Yet it is Declair’s mesmeric role as the twisted and tormented Dreverhaven that lingers long in the memory.  Declair possesses a formidable screen presence as the repressed father.  Driven by an unhinged vengeance and an ever increasing reliance on alcohol, his determination to exert influence over the future of his illegitimate son is at once pitiable and yet ultimately well reasoned, if unreasonably executed.  Declair perfectly inhabits the menace of the ruthless bailiff.  His hulking frame haunts the shadows of the poverty stricken streets and the fear of eviction pervades into every household.  He is a monstrous beast of a man, an enigma, a ghoulish presence in the life of the young Katadreuffe.  Through intuition Katadreuffe senses that this detested figure may in fact be central to his own life.  During the climatic finale, a ferocious tussle pauses long enough to hint at a momentary embrace between the two men, the only time in which affection is physically exuded.  Yet Dreverhaven is driven by brutal provocation, loathing and manipulation. He remains utterly focused on his bizarre and spiteful methods of educating a son forbidden to him.  As he disturbingly exudes to Joba, “I'll strangle him for nine-tenths, and the last tenth will make him strong.”
The film emphasises to what extent a child’s future is preordained and mapped out, assisted or hindered by the decisions of parents.  We see this in Joba’s decision to leave her job, move away as a single parent and her continued rejection of Dreverhaven’s marital proposal.

Though the audience is invited to align themselves with Katadreuffe and despise of the destructive Dreverhaven, it is through the former’s unravelling of the mystery surrounding their relationship that the bailiff becomes a more human and more comprehendible figure.  By bringing to light the reasons behind such repression of emotions, the repercussions of these actions become ever more transparent.  Karakter proves to be a vivid and exhausting tale which dramatically elevates the conflicts of a broken family.  It evokes an adolescent’s search for identity and belonging in society and the frustrations which thwart their developing characteristics and ambitions.  This is a fractious and emotionally charged film about fulfilment undermined by parental interference, and the exploration of such universal and continually relevant moral themes ensures its pertinence in modern Dutch culture.  Van Diem directs commercials now; a sad waste of a talented feature director and perhaps this film’s most unfortunate legacy.  

Now, what’s next…Spoorloos, Turks Fruit, a Haanstra documentary maybe…?

Graham Jackson
British expat Graham Jackson has lived in the Netherlands since  February 2008. A budding writer, he has a passion for music, film and literature.


Expat Voices: Graham Jackson on living in the Netherlands
Expatica features Graham's perspective on life in the Netherlands.


Graham Jackson / Expatica


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