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The Toad and the Butterfly

An Oscar-winning Dutch film proves that art can survive even in the era of Titanic.

Alan A. Stone

Tolstoy, like many great writers of his time, was enthusiastic about the possibilities of moving pictures. When a friend warned him that the new medium would allow capitalists to gain control of artists, Tolstoy scoffed and recounted the story of the ugly toad and the beautiful butterfly.

The butterfly circles ever closer to the toad's gaping mouth and then unaccountably enters and is swallowed. A waste of beauty, it seems, until the naturalist explains that butterflies of this exotic species can only reproduce this way. So, Tolstoy reassured his friend, art would survive its journey through the bowels of capitalism and flourish in cinema.

After this year's Oscars, Tolstoy and his friend might both claim vindication. His friend could point to Titanic: With unlimited capital and all the special effects one can buy, Titanic gave audiences an experience of virtual reality-the philistine product that Hollywood increasingly substitutes for art. But Tolstoy could point to Character, an unheralded Dutch film that was awarded the Oscar for best foreign film. Though far from artistic perfection, Character proves that art and artistic ambition survive.
Jakob (Fedja van Huet) dances with Lorna (Tamar van den Dop) under the eyes of kindly mentor De Gankelaar (Victor Low)

Character is based on the 1938 novel Karakter by Ferdinand Bordewijk. Although relatively unknown to the English-speaking world, Bordewijk is one of Holland's foremost twentieth-century writers, and Karakter has earned a place in Dutch literature. Capitalist/producer Laurens Geels had the dream of making Karakter into a film, and together with his partner Dick Maas came up with $3 million and put the project into the hands of first time director Mike van Diem, who wrote the extraordinary screenplay with the help of Geels and Ruud van Megen.

Upon receiving his Oscar, Diem described himself as "another crazy Dutch director." His film suggests that he is crazy like a fox and hungry enough to take risks. Knowing it would be impossible to be faithful to the novel, he claims to have imagined the screen play Bordewijk would have written. Diem gives far too much credit to Bordewijk, whose novel, it turns out, is a rather conventional work of its time. Diem's film depicts a social world reminiscent of Dickens's Hard Times, populates it with abstract, almost surreal, Kafkaesque characters, and wraps it in cinematography inspired by Rembrandt's ocher and golden brown palette.

Character is set in Rotterdam during the years between the great wars when hard times meant class struggle and led to the rise of communism and fascism. Law, it is said, protects vested interests, and at no time does that saying seem more compellingly true than during a protracted depression. Then, the human price of protecting the goods and property of the haves against the needs of the have-nots becomes cruelly visible in the streets: the law on the books is at war with the law of humanity.

Dreverhaven, the sinister protagonist of Character, embodies the unforgiving law in all its cruelty. He is the bailiff who nails the court orders on the door and ensures that the tenants are all evicted. Neither judge nor policeman, he is the rule of law incarnate-swollen with righteous indignation and bearing his seal of office as though it were both shield and sword. Jan Decleir, who plays this part with awesome intensity, was the gentle Farmer Bas of Antonia's Line. Here he is the brutal father risen from the collective unconscious, ready to devour his son. Wrapped in a black great-coat and wearing a broad-brimmed black fedora, he has very few lines: everything is physical presence, expression, and body language.

The part seems to have been conceived so that whatever Dreverhaven does or says will shock and surprise the audience. Early on we see him leading the eviction of a tenement. In one of the dingy rooms his officers are stopped by what appears to be a family's death watch over a dying mother. When the family pleads that she will be dead by morning, the officers look to Dreverhaven. Dreverhaven in turn looks to heaven as if relenting, then suddenly reaches down, pulls the mattress with the woman on it out into the streets, and dumps her onto the pavement. But Diem is unwilling to let the audience simply digest its outrage. The dying mother leaps up and starts beating on the bailiff-it was a ploy against the law. Dreverhaven will not let the lock of stereotype fall into its dead-bolt. One is at a loss to say how much of Decleir's extraordinary performance is due to his acting or the director's guile. But this is one of those rare films in which an archetype takes on a new and mysterious character.

Contemporary psychological discussion of human character is a tower of psychobabble. The concept keeps collapsing into others: self, personality, identity, and temperament. The supposed origins of character shift according to discipline and within disciplines one generation repudiates the ideas of its predecessors. At the extremes, character is a cage that cannot be broken out of, or an illusion kept in place by bad faith.

Ordinary language makes a similar distinction between psychological character-as the imprint of genes and experience, implying something determined or even predetermined about the person-and moral character, implying something for which the person is responsible. This crisp distinction follows the dominant tradition of Western thought, which assigns morality and psychology to separate domains. Old-fashioned moral character has received short shrift in this century. Freud relegated it to the superego, Skinner to the reinforcement schedule, and now we are told that our moral impulses are a relic of proto-hominid evolution. "Identification with the aggressor," "learned helplessness," and "altruism and the gene pool": these are the psychological narratives that disempower the person as moral agent. Nonetheless, the intuition that people bear responsibility for their character and conduct has never been completely extinguished. Character, set geographically in Rotterdam, is located intellectually on this moral-psychological terrain.

We are not given the slightest hint of the formative context that produced Dreverhaven. Of course that is how young children see their parents. Children do not yet understand where their parents have come from, who they are, or where they are going; they only feel their parents' power. That is why the child's imagination is filled with archetypes. We see this Dreverhaven-as all movie monsters-through the eyes of a child.

The bailiff takes possession of his housekeeper with the same ruthless impassivity he exhibits in sending poor tenants to the streets. Only an eyebrow is raised in lust; an unspoken but unrefusable demand is made; and out of a single act of intercourse a son is conceived. The housekeeper stays on after being "raped," but when she discovers she is pregnant, she moves out of his house and refuses his offers of money and marriage. The housekeeper is even more silent than Dreverhaven, and her motives and reasons are equally obscure. But one senses the contest of wills. This woman, Joba Katadreuffe (Betty Schuurman), proves as strong as Dreverhaven. She submitted her body to his, but never surrenders her person to his will. Connected only by their contest of wills, neither seems capable of love. We are given no more background for her character than we have for his. This adds to the Kafkaesque power of their contest because it cannot be explained away psychologically. We are transported back to a world where psychology and morality commingle. One is reminded of Hegel's struggle to the death between master and servant. The son Jakob (Fedja van Huet) who is given his mother's name, Katadreuffe, is born into that contest of wills. Out of that beginning we watch him make his character. It is through Jakob's eyes and his memory that the film tells its story.

Diem is a guileful director but he is not subtle. His film begins with a rush of intense activity. Swooping camera shots, bustling docks, violent confrontation, thunder, Gestapo-like police, and the arrest of Jakob Katadreuffe. The question of his character is posed for the audience by the magistrate: did Jakob Katadreuffe murder Bailiff Dreverhaven? The story of Jakob's life is then told in flashbacks as he explains to the magistrate his relationship to the victim. Diem's critics find this kick-in-the-stomach opening too crude; same for the overworked bad-cop/good-cop dynamic he uses to set the mood for the magistrate's interrogation. The damning critics see a student film maker borrowing from Welles and Spielberg. But out of these borrowings, Diem has crafted his own work of art. One of the measures of his originality is that every element in this first rush of events will be woven into his film. Though bombastic, it works as an overture, and its power and passion bring us into a different time and place.

Character is yet another telling of the saga of Oedipus, but not the Freudian middle class version. This son is only a pawn in the battle to the death between his biological parents, and Jakob's mother, Joba, is herself a stunningly new version of an archetype. Just as the audience wants to make Dreverhaven into The Bad Father, one almost aches for Joba to be The Good Mother. But she resists. Neither good nor bad, Joba is the negation of maternal feelings. Her character stretches psychological explanation to the breaking point. Above all, Joba is remote and her child's imploring looks evoke no response. This negation of a mother would make any son yearn for a father. So the young boy goes in search of the bailiff and finds him on that very dockside where the film begins. Their eyes meet but with no acknowledgment that each knows the other's identity.

After another rush of action, Jakob is arrested by a policeman who gives every indication of being a sadistic pederast. When asked his name, the young boy, for the first and only time in his life, claims to be Jakob Dreverhaven. The bailiff is called to the detention center, and although he knows full well Jakob is his son, denies it. Left to the sexual predator, the boy only escapes his clutches by biting him on the nose with all the strength of his desperation. As elsewhere, Diem paints with broad strokes: but nothing is de trop in this fable version of a bildungsroman. Diem will use to good effect that same stroke in the deadly confrontation between Jakob and his father.

Jakob returns to his mother, who had told him, "we have no need of that man" and of course he could not understand. Now he tells her "we have no need of that man." Because he does not explain what has happened to him, she will never understand what he means.

The failure of human understanding becomes, can it be said, the defining flaw of Jakob's character. He is as resolute and determined as Joba and Dreverhaven. He explains to the magistrate that he has pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. Lacking a mother who would talk to him, he read some books he found and mastered English. Without a father to protect him from the taunt of bastard, he learned to defend himself and control his temper. And by sheer will and determination, he overcame poverty and bankruptcy to become a lawyer. He believes in his own effort and will as what defines his character. But his resolution and self-discipline destroy the transformative possibility of love for him. The poignancy of his loss is driven home by the fact that Jakob, first as a child, then as preadolescent and young man, is so decent and lovable.

Most of the film tells the story of why Jakob should hate the bailiff. Like his mother, he is drawn into a defining contest of wills with Dreverhaven. But hers is the pure and abstract struggle of servant against master for self-realization. Jakob has motives and reasons which suggest more obvious psychological explanations. He is the son who has something to prove to his awful father.

The iconic bailiff eventually takes on psychological overtones as Joba defeats him by dying. We witness his nightmare in which this huge peasant of a man stands naked (his genitalia airbrushed away and not by the dream-censor) in front of a throng of tenants he is evicting. He holds up his seal of office and a woman throws the first stone and the throng turns into an angry mob attacking him. It is another bold brush stroke by Diem which is repeated with the bailiff fully dressed and his seal of office prevailing as he fearlessly enforces the rule of law. The same woman who threw the stone leads her angry husband away.

The nightmare and other scenes suggest that the bailiff's seeming courage conceals a death wish. This is the insight of Jakob's kindly mentor--the lawyer, De Gankelaar (Victor Löw)--who wants his single minded protégé to understand. It is also the mentor who, when Jakob refuses his gift, shouts at the young man that he has so much to give but it will all be wasted if he cannot learn to take. If you are cynical about the transformative power of love, you will not recognize the mentor's warning as a shaft driven into the core of Jakob's being. But he is telling Jakob that the gift of love-grace-has to be accepted if one is to be saved. Jakob takes the gift but not the lesson.

Jakob had never been loved and when a beautiful young woman (Tamar van den Dop) loves him he is unable to recognize what is happening to him. She marries someone else. In one of her rare statements, his mother wryly observes that he was a jackass to miss this opportunity. A Freudian might say, "yes, Joba Katadreuffe, he never discovered love with you, his mother and so he could not rediscover love in a wife." Here we have the kind of psychological narrative-my mother didn't love me-that says we are not responsible for our characters and that our parents must teach us how to love.

This reading makes Character a story of neurosis. Other narratives of reinforcement schedules and genetic predisposition can be deployed to explain Jakob's character as determined or even predetermined. The fable can be torn out of its moral context. Diem provides just enough psychology to whet the appetite of those who are hungry for such reductive interpretations and want to deny that life is a moral adventure. Joba and Dreverhaven, too, could have their characters and moral responsibility explained away. That might come as a relief to all of them if they were willing to see their struggles as morally meaningless.

But Jakob and Dreverhaven's confrontation that begins and ends the film is a dispute about character. Jakob wants Dreverhaven to know that he is a self-made man who has accomplished everything in spite of his hateful father; Dreverhaven wants to shake hands and tell his son that he the father created the adversity that was the formative context of his son's success. With each claiming credit for Jakob's character, they fall on each other in self-righteous rage demonstrating, if nothing else, how precious we hold the sense of moral responsibility.

The end of Diem's film can be left as a mystery. It will not resolve any of the matters discussed here. Like all film-makers who achieve some measure of artistic success, Diem leaves his audience wondering about the human condition. The making of Character, however, suggests that Tolstoy and his friend were both wrong about capitalists. They are not all ugly toads. It turns out that a few of them are butterflies. Perhaps that too says something about the moral possibilities of human character.

Originally published in the Summer 1998 issue of Boston Review



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