Most European countries have long, rich film traditions. But while nations such as France, Germany, and even Denmark have made formidable contributions to world cinema, the Low Countries' role has been more sketchy. According to Robert Sklar's Film: An International History of the Medium, however, one of the most important proto-cinematic innovations has roots in the Netherlands, this year's Memphis in May honored country. In the mid-17th century, Dutch inventors devised a way to project painted images through a lens using light (either the sun or candlelight). This development led to the first self-contained projectors -- Magic Lanterns -- which included a light source, image, and lens all in one apparatus.
But since that crucial contribution to cinema's prehistory, discussion of Dutch film is usually limited to two names -- Joris Ivens and Paul Verhoeven. Ivens was an early political documentarian with roots in the Soviet style who, despite his own roots, made films all over the world, including the U.S. and China. Likewise, Verhoeven left the Netherlands for work elsewhere. Most Americans are familiar with his extreme (if often misunderstood) blockbusters RoboCop and Starship Troopers, but Verhoeven made many well-regarded films in his native Netherlands during the '70s and early '80s, including Soldier of Orange and The Fourth Man.
But the Netherlands' film scene also gained a bit of international exposure a few years ago when director Mike van Diem's severe but emotional Karakter (Character in the U.S.) won the 1998 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Karakter will be shown this week at Malco's Bartlett Cinema Ten as part of Memphis in May.
Visually, Karakter is a harsh but striking blend of black, brown, and white -- black suits, brown offices, and white snow. Set in Rotterdam during the early 1900s, the film opens with an aging court bailiff, Dreverhaven (Jan Decleir), found dead and a young lawyer held under suspicion of murder. The film is told in flashbacks as Katadreuffe (Fedja Van Huet), the lawyer, defends his innocence and describes to the police his relationship with Dreverhaven.
Dreverhaven, it turns out, is a vicious, heartless official who takes joy in ruthlessly evicting poor families. Katadreuffe, who we learn is Dreverhaven's illegitimate son, describes him as "law without compassion, the curse of the poor." Katadreuffe is conceived when Dreverhaven forces himself on his servant Joba (Betty Schuurman). Joba decides to flee rather than accept Dreverhaven's marriage proposal and raises Katadreuffe in poverty. Katadreuffe grows up taunted by schoolmates as a bastard and, after learning the identity of his father, develops a hardened hatred for him.
But Dreverhaven watches his son's growth from afar, inflicting what may be cruelty and what may be tough love. "Why don't you leave our boy in peace," Joba asks Dreverhaven during one of their rare meetings. "I'll strangle him for nine-tenths, and the last tenth will make him strong," the old man responds.
Karakter is based on a 1938 novel by Ferdinand Bordwijk that was a major bestseller in the Netherlands, and the film has a Dickensian feel. It is essentially a dark, spite-driven Horatio Alger tale: Poor Katadreuffe learns English (and much more) from an incomplete set of encyclopedias he finds abandoned in a new apartment his mother rents and works his way through bankruptcy to become a lawyer. But his largely unspoken family feud is never far from the surface of his life, culminating in the dramatic confrontation that bookends the film.
Karakter is a fine film, but viewers shouldn't read too much into that Oscar win. The Best Foreign Language Film Oscar rarely rewards the most exciting international cinema. And it's hard to say how much the period piece has to say about life in the Netherlands today. But quibbles aside, Karakter is still an accomplished film that's worthy of this week's big-screen showcase.