It is set in a port town in The Netherlands sometime in the 1920s. Dreverhaven, a merciless bailiff who specializes in rent collection, is found dead at his place of business, a knife in his stomach. The police arrest one Jacob Willem Katadreuffe, a young lawyer who is known to be an enemy of Dreverhaven, and who bears the marks of having recently been in a fight. Jacob reveals to his interrogators that he is actually Dreverhaven's illegitimate son. Some twenty-odd years before Dreverhaven knocked up his housekeeper, Joba Katadreuffe. Joba rejected Dreverhaven's offers of marriage and financial support, and raises her boy alone. Jacob strives to raise himself out of poverty, while continually crossing paths with his distant, taciturn father.
- Benevolent Boss: De Gankaalar, who hires Jacob at the law firm, defends him at a bankruptcy hearing, and buys Jacob's books so that Dreverhaven can't seize them as payment of debt.
- Catapult Nightmare: There's a scene where a Torches and Pitchforks mob advances on Dreverhaven's business. The scene gets odder when Dreverhaven strips naked for some unknown reason before going out front to confront them. Then they lynch him. It ends with Dreverhaven awaking from a Catapult Nightmare.
- Chekhov's Skill: Jacob stumbles across an old English-language encyclopedia set as a child. He manages to teach himself English by reading it. Later his proficiency in English gets him a job clerking for the law firm.
- Dramatic Thunder: A way over-the-top clap of thunder as Jacob finally fights Dreverhaven.
- Driven to Suicide: The investigation reveals that Dreverhaven actually killed himself, several hours after his fight with Jacob.
- Framing Device: Jacob's interrogation by the cops is the vehicle for him to tell the whole story of his complicated relationship with Dreverhaven.
- Incurable Cough of Death: Joba is shown coughing as they watch a Ben Turpin movie. Sure enough, we find out soon after that she has weak lungs, and a little bit after that she dies in her sleep.
- It Always Rains at Funerals: It pours for Joba's. Jacob thinks that Dreverhaven will reach out to him at the funeral, but Dreverhaven doesn't.
- It Will Never Catch On: Jacob's buddy, an enthusiastic communist, says "Everyone will be a communist by the end of the century."
- Kids Are Cruel: Throwing rocks at poor little Jacob and passing notes to him in class that say "BASTARD."
- Law of Inverse Fertility: One night of illicit sex between Dreverhaven and his housekeeper makes a baby.
- Match Cut: There's a shot of Dreverhaven walking towards his building with one of his flunkies, then they're obscured by a crate, then the next shot shows Dreverhaven and the flunky still walking, but inside the building.
- "Not Wearing Pants" Dream: Dreverhaven has a Catapult Nightmare in which he goes out to confront an angry mob, while in the nude.
- Oblivious to Love: Somehow, despite being attracted to her himself, Jacob manages to completely miss the obvious signals that Lorna is in love with him.
- The One That Got Away: Having realized way too late that Lorna was in love with him, Jacob tells her that he'll never forget her. His mother, a realist as always, tells Jacob that he was an ass.
- The Stoic: Joba is stoic to the point of having a schizoid personality. She is incapable of expressing any affection and in fact hardly ever moves her face. She is cold to her son and hardly reacts when he tells her he's moving out, other than to say "Do as you like." Apparently she can only express her emotions nonverbally, like when Jacob opens his suitcase and is surprised to find that his mother has packed two shirts for him.
- Torches and Pitchforks: Everyone hates Dreverhaven, a bailiff whose main business is evicting people, and who runs a loansharking business on the side. He has a Catapult Nightmare in which a torch-wielding mob comes to his business, a woman throws a rock at him, and they lynch him. Later the nightmare comes true, except that the woman de-escalates the situation instead and the torch-wielding mob goes home.
- Tough Love: Evidently Dreverhaven's whole motivation. Having not been involved in his son's life, he resolves to continually screw with him, apparently in the belief that it will make Jacob stronger. And it works, as Jacob becomes a successful lawyer largely to spite his father."I'll strangle him nine-tenths, and the last tenth will make him strong."