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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
Character (Karakter) (1997)

"Dreverhaven, court bailiff. The law without compassion... the curse of the poor."
- Jacob (Fedja van Huêt)

Review By: Joel Cunningham  
Published: August 14, 2003

Stars: Fedja van Huêt, Jan Decleur
Other Stars: Betty Schuurman, Tamar van den Dop, Victor Löw, Hans Kresting
Director: Mike van Diem

Manufacturer: DVSS
MPAA Rating: R for violence
Run Time: 02h:04m:41s
Release Date: February 04, 2003
UPC: 043396085572
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- A-BB D-

DVD Review

"Who taught you that senseless self-chastisement? I give you the money and you take it! People who can't accept a gift have nothing to give themselves."

About halfway through Dutch director Mike van Diem's 1997, Oscar®-winning debut, Character, the hero, Jacob (Fedja van Huêt) is so advised by his mentor, De Gankelaar (Victor Löw). It seems such an innocuous comment—De Gankelaar is chastising Jacob for his unrelenting pride in his self-sufficiency—but it is, as much as anything, the key to unlocking Jacob's character, and the struggles he endures throughout the film.

This is an ambitious Dickensian tale, a bildungsroman journey through the life of an exceptional young man living in post-WWI Rotterdam. The story is told through flashbacks—the film opens with a confrontation between Jacob and an older man, Dreverhaven (Jan Decleur), who soon winds up dead; we're led to believe that Jacob was the murderer, and as he is questioned by the police, Jacob shares the story of his life and his tumultuous relationship with Dreverhaven.

Dreverhaven is a cruel, cold man, an unrelenting court bailiff who seems to relish turning people out into the streets (at one point, he marches into a tenement and drags a sickly woman out, bed and all, but only because he could "tell the woman was faking"). One night, he shares his bed with Joba (Betty Schuurman), his dour maid, and when she winds up pregnant, he doesn't turn her out into the streets—she chooses that fate for herself, rather than marry Dreverhaven. She gives birth to young Jacob, and stubbornly, repeatedly refuses money and marriage offers from her former employer.

As a boy, Jacob is taunted by the other children and called a bastard. He discovers the identity of his father, and is curious to know why his mother has shut him out of their lives. While on a visit to Dreverhaven's office, through an unfortunate set of circumstances, Jacob is picked up by the police, who believe he is part of a gang of thieving boys. Jacob gives Dreverhaven's name to the officers, but the man falsely claims not to know the boy, and Jacob is jailed and subjected to a sexual assault by a guard before he can escape.

Jacob vows never to have anything more to do with his father, and is determined to keep his word, but Dreverhaven is a powerful man, and difficult to avoid. First, he unknowingly takes out a loan from one of the man's banks; then later, even after going into bankruptcy to pay back the first, he knowingly takes another. Dreverhaven and Jacob are taunting and testing each other, Jacob determined to succeed in life and become a lawyer, Dreverhaven determined to see him fail, or at least, to toughen his spirit in the process (when Joba asks Dreverhaven to leave her son alone, he replies, " I'll strangle him for nine-tenths, and the last tenth will make him strong.").

We're pretty sure where Character is going right from the start, but the story manages to surprise with subtle developments that hint at unseen depths to the already well-rounded characters. Dreverhaven, a glorious villain, is hateful, but never entirely repulsive. Decleur gives a wonderful performance, stalking about in a menacing cloak and peering coolly out from under the brim of a hat that keeps his face in shadow and his thoughts a mystery. We see some of his own doubts and fears, and maybe we begin to understand his seemingly hateful attitude towards his son—he has seen the true nature of the world, and he knows it takes a hardened man to confront it. Jacob, strong-willed but too driven by his need for revenge, shares more of his father's character than he'd like to admit, so much so that his mother barely speaks to him.

Mike van Diem, who co-wrote the screenplay (based on a popular Dutch novel by Ferdinand Bordewijk), brings to the film an intimate feel, despite the vast, literary scope of the story. The streets of Rotterdam are dark and menacing, leached of their color, befitting a film about poverty and struggle, but the characters' lives are rich with detail. Rogier Stoffers' (Quills) cinematography has a gothic beauty, his stark use of shadow reminiscent of German Expressionism.

Character begins with a question (was it Jacob who killed Dreverhaven?), and ends with an answer that explains everything, save what was going through Dreverhaven's mind in those last, desperate moments, whether the man had any love left in his heart. For what is parental love if not the desire to see your children face the world, and conquer it?

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The subtitles for Character are burned-in, not player encoded. That means Columbia TriStar used a later generation source print for the DVD master. And with each generation comes the possibility that print flaws will be introduced, including increased grain, lines, scratches, and dirt. Sadly, such defects are readily apparent throughout the film, noticeable but only occasionally distracting.

Otherwise, this is generally a very good transfer, aside from some intermittent artifacting and aliasing, likely a result of cramming the two hour film onto a single layer DVD. The drab color palette is reproduced beautifully, with deep blacks and excellent shadow delineation. I didn't notice any edge enhancement, and detail remains excellent throughout.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: This basic, dialogue based track (in the original 5.1 DD Dutch) is quite suited to the film. Speech is clear, and anchored in the center channel, with a careful balance between dialogue and voiceover. The lush orchestral score fills out the main soundstage and is supported by the rears, which also come alive with atmospheric enhancements (rain, crowds).

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring All About My Mother, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Extras for Character include the trailer and spots for two other Best Foreign Film Oscar® winners: All About My Mother and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. English subtitles are your only option; unfortunately, they are burned-in.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

A fascinating tale of pride and revenge, Character was a worthy choice for the 1998 Best Foreign Film Oscar®, and Columbia TriStar's DVD would make a worthy addition to your collection.


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