I love a good murder mystery, particularly one told with great style and a touch of humor. David O. Russell’s “Amsterdam” doesn’t invite you into its quirky drawing room and secrets initially. We’re not immediately seduced by the people we meet, a doctor on the wrong of his wife’s affections and a lawyer on the wrong side of the color line. You might wonder what either has to do with “Amsterdam.”
Dr. Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) is a veteran of the war; his face bears raw testimony to his service. Harold Woodsman (John David Washington) shares the bond of army brothers with Burt. We learn soon enough that his wife’s family disapproves of him and that may be the reason Burt served in World War I as the doctor for an African American troop. Were his in-laws really hoping he wouldn’t come back? He is, after all, not from money, and he has another social impediment: He’s half Jewish and half Catholic.
You might not recall that there was prejudice against Catholics. Both Jews and Catholics would suffer during World War II under the Nazis, but this film is the 1930s and the US won’t enter the next war until 1941.
- Catholic priests, nuns were among those killed by Nazis (10 May 2020)
- Christianity and the Holocaust
- German Catholics among those who suffered under Nazis (7 May 2020)
What does happen in the 1930s is the so-called Business Plot, also known as the Wall Street Putsch and the White House Putsch. According to Merriam-Webster, a “putsch” is “a secretly plotted and suddenly executed attempt to over throw a government.” You might think the word is Russian, but it comes from Swiss German, meaning to “knock” or “thrust.”
Putsch attempts were common in Weimar Germany, so the word appeared often in the stories of the English journalists who described the insurrections. Adolf Hitler also attempted a putsch (known as the Beer Hall Putsch), but he ultimately gained control of the German government via other means.
Russell approaches this like an adult fairytale where Amsterdam is portrayed as a place where a White nurse (Margot Robbie as Valerie Voze) who is an artist inspired by the grisly shrapnel pulled from patients and Black soldier could find space for an affair with the half-Jewish doctor as a third-wheel buddy. Returning to the states, Burt and Harold continue to be haunted by the war and the wonder of Amsterdam, but they are confronted with a murder mystery and soon accused of murder.
Harold will meet his lost love again through this convoluted maze of connections that includes a sinister sister-in-law (Anya Taylor-Joy) who might be controlling a Valerie’s controlling brother Tom Voze (Rami Malek). Once reunited, Burt, Harold and Valerie ultimately uncover what might seem like a preposterous plot to overthrow the newly elected president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. We never see Roosevelt but we do see Taylor Swift as a senator’s daughter (Ed Begley Jr. plays her father, Bill Meekins) and Robert De Niro as a war hero general who is asked to lead the insurrection.
The design is beautiful and the cinematography by Emmanuel Lobezki gives you lush colors and a sense of nostalgic wonder that hides something horrific. The tone here borders on absurdist, and it might seem like an allegorical tale aimed at teaching us something about the recent 6 January US Capitol attack. Yet this a fictionalized story based on true events. While I wasn’t initially comfortable with even the obvious diversity casting, Russell provides a satisfactory explanation and eventually builds sympathy for the three main characters with a few surprises. Going in without any preconceived notions, but a definite appreciation for the 1930s fashions and art, I was surprised to learn how much of this is based on fact.
The 1930s were not a good time for women or minorities in the US or Europe. Let’s start there. That should be a given. But as we know, World War I wasn’t the war to end all wars. And before Tom Cruise was Maverick in “Top Gun,” a Major General Smedley Butler (1881-1940) was the “Maverick Marine.” He had fought in the Philippine-American War, the Boxer Rebellion, the Mexican Revolution and World War I. You might think as a marine and a general, he was a war hawk, but in 1935, he was the author of a book, “War Is a Racket,” which was critical of the US for its wars which he was as motivated by large US corporations and imperialism. He had retired in 1931. Butler toured the country, speaking out against war profiteering, US military adventurism and growing fascist tendencies. He died in June 1940. De Niro’s Gil Dillenbeck is based on Butler.
During World War I, the Netherlands was neutral.
- The Art of Staying Neutral: The Netherlands in the First World War, 1914-1918
- International Encyclopedia of the First World War: The Netherlands
World War I (1914-1918) ended with Germany forced to pay reparations and give up territories to the allied nations. Hitler had already taken leadership of the Nazi Party as of 1921 according to History.com, and the Nazis were promoting German pride coupled with anti-Semitism. Hitler had served in the war and been injured by a British mustard gas attack and was hospitalized when German surrendered in November of 1918.
Beer Hall Putsch
In 1923, Hitler led an attempt to take over the Bavarian state government, as the first step in taking over the Weimar Republic, by kidnapping the state commissioner of Bavaria. His group was successful, but other groups within his organization was not and when Hitler left the beer hall where he held the commissioner, things began to unravel. For his part in the putsch, Hitler ended up in jail where he wrote “Mein Kampf.” This 1925 manifesto was published in an abridged version in English in 1933.
Wall Street Putsch
You’ve probably heard of Hitler’s Brownshirts, but there were many more shirts in the mix. According to an article from The Guardian:
In a climate of conspiracies and intrigues, and against the backdrop of charismatic dictators in the world such as Hitler and Mussolini, the sparks of anti-Rooseveltism ignited into full-fledged hatred. Many American intellectuals and business leaders saw nazism and fascism as viable models for the US. The rise of Hitler and the explosion of the Nazi revolution, which frightened many European nations, struck a chord with prominent American elites and antisemites such as Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford. Hitler’s elite Brownshirts – a mass body of party storm troopers separate from the 100,000-man German army – was a stark symbol to the powerless American masses. Mussolini’s Blackshirts – the military arm of his organization made up of 200,000 soldiers – were a potent image of strength to a nation that felt emasculated.
In the US, there were the Gray Shirts of New York who worked to remove Communist college professors and Tennessee had Whiteshirts who wanted to takeover the capitol. The elite were among them, such as JP Morgan.
- The Wall Street Putsch: When Powerful Bankers Sought to Overthrow FDR with a Fascist Dictator (19 February 2022)
- Wealthy Bankers and Businessmen Plotted to Overthrow FDR. A Retired General Foiled It. (13 January 2021)
- The Wall Street Putsch: Did Fascist Bankers Try to Overthrow Franklin Roosevelt? (17 April 2019)
- When the Bankers Plotted to Overthrow FDR (12 February 2012)
According to The Washington Post:
Smedley D. Butler was a highly decorated Marine Corps general who had received the Medal of Honor twice. He was beloved by his men before his retirement, and more so afterward when he spoke in support of the Bonus Army’s fight for early bonus payments for World War I service.
“He was wildly popular and was an outspoken critic of fascism and Mussolini at a time when there was really an impulse toward that throughout the world, including in the United States,” Denton said.
Given his opposition to fascism, Butler might not have seemed like a good fit for the job of coup leader, but his support from veterans was more important to the Wall Street plotters. At the time, there were many more veterans than active-duty service members; if someone could summon them as a force of 500,000 to march on Washington, the government could fall without a shot being fired.
What happened is, according to the New York Times headlines (21 November 1934):
“Amsterdam” features entertaining performances by Bale, Robbie and Washington who have surprising good chemistry together. Chris Rock is tough enough to take more than a slap in the face as an army buddy of Burt and Harold, and there’s a sweetness between Zoe Saldaña as the medical examiner and Bale’s Burt. There’s something just a bit off-kilter about a US Naval Intelligence man, Henry Norcross (Michael Shannon), teamed up with an M16 spy (Mike Myers) with a cover of manufacturing glass eyes. Rami Malek gets to play with ambiguous evil again as Taylor-Joy is a different kind of chess player.
My husband and I warmed up to the film and its machinations. There’s both style and substance.
“Amsterdam” is more than a good murder mystery, it’s a reminder that the theater of the absurd can be reality, that the disastrous four years led by a president isn’t an anomaly of history. Once upon a time, a general led us away from a civil war, an insurrection pushed by a fascist impulse. Once upon a time, Amsterdam was a place where beautiful things were possible with the Rijksmuseum. Yet we also know that the Nazi army would invade the Netherlands in 1940. The Dutch government and royal family fled to London. Then Amsterdam became the city where a young girl Anne Frank would hide and write about hope for the future. At the very least, this once upon a time gives us a curious history lesson without expecting us to know the dates or names, but exposing what we did and didn’t learn and that might be the biggest mystery of all.
“Amsterdam” had its world premiere in New York City 18 September 2022 and was released in the US on 7 October 2022 by 20th Century Studios.