When a man disengages from human emotion to become a pure embodiment of his occupation, how far might he affect the people around him? 1997's Character (Karakter) gives little more information than that about its fearsome bailiff; the movie is plainly but pleasantly shot, slightly dreary. The story itself is intriguing but its lack of detail both make it provokingly mysterious and insubstantial.
The story centres on Katadreuffe (Fedja van Huet) who as the film opens has just been arrested for the murder of Dreverhaven (Jan Decleir), the infamous bailiff who's known for mercilessly evicting people from their homes and collecting debts. Katadreuffe tells a panel of authorities his life story, beginning before he was born with the tale of how Dreverhaven, who is his father, met and impregnated his mother (Betty Schuurman), possibly in a rape (it isn't made clear), who was employed as his maid.
The encounter could not be described in more vibrant terms--the seemingly emotionless Dreverhaven seems well matched by the woman who rarely says more than a few words, seemingly content to perform her duties silently. When she becomes pregnant and moves out, she responds with refusal to Dreverhaven's repeated telegrams and letters simply asking her, "When will we be married?"
Why is she so reserved? We never find out. We might assume Dreverhaven's stony heart comes from his occupation in which compassion would be a liability. Katadreuffe becomes obsessed with succeeding in life seemingly as revenge for Dreverhaven's actions against his mother or perhaps as a rebuke for everything Dreverhaven represents. Though Katadreuffe befriends a Communist and attends a rally but mostly it seems as though Katadreuffe is just as capitalist as his father.
The obsession of Katadreuffe's life seems to imperil his own chances at healthy personal relationships but this avenue is never fully explored despite a love interest (Tamar van den Dop) Katadreuffe may never end up with. The movie presents many beginnings of issues but few endings. Dreverhaven is a continually interesting character, his coldness evolving into a death wish, leading him to do things like cross a military barricade to evict gun wielding rebels. Dreverhaven just keeps walking with his big black coat and hat.