Dhat modern art owes much to the First World War is one of many bitter truths about history. The tremendous destruction left its shock waves in paintings and sculptures, provoked bold avant-gardes and ultimately even required completely new forms.
However, one aspect that David O. Russell plays with in his new comedy “Amsterdam” has seldom received attention: that the restoration of damaged bodies can also have something artistic about it. Christian Bale plays a veteran named Burt, who makes a living in New York with a post-traumatic prosthetics practice. All the maltreated and wounded from the Great War report to him, he tinkers them with new cheeks or shoulders, for himself he needs a support belt and also a glass eye. They also experiment with drugs, because the harder stuff that is needed in these years often has to be specially mixed first.
Burt personally doesn’t have the worst memories of the war. He’s made lifelong friends there, most notably Harold (John David Washington, last starring in Tenet), but also the slightly wacky nurse Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), who draws inspiration from Burt’s prosthetic faces to create portraits , which could also come from Fernand Léger or Man Ray.
Burt and Harold and Valerie have a great time in Amsterdam after the end of the war, a break after the bad. They would also have fitted well in Berlin, but “Babylon Berlin” is set in the same era. There was a spirit of optimism in many places after years of violence and hardship. Russell probably chose Amsterdam because there was no distinct fascism of his own, the city lies rather between Germany and Italy on the one hand, England and the USA on the other.
Fascism is the central theme of “Amsterdam”, even if you don’t immediately notice it. Because David O. Russell takes complicated detours to get to his point of view, and he does it with a cinematic narrative that can at least be described as weird or strange or eccentric. Comedy is his specialty, as we know since his masterpiece “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012), after which he followed up with “American Hustle”. However, “Amsterdam” is anything but a classic comedy. It’s all there, i.e. wordplay, slapstick, embarrassment, but it all seems as if the film is always just warming up for the big round of punch lines. The genius of “Amsterdam” lies precisely in this incompleteness, which is incredibly precisely choreographed in detail.
Russell loves stories with many characters, which also means: with many stars. In “Amsterdam” he has again assembled a sizable squad: alongside his favorites Christian Bale and Margot Robbie (and the already mentioned newcomer John David Washington) there are also Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Taylor Swift, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon and Rami to see Malek.
Robert DeNiro, who is still underestimated as a comedian, has taken on the supporting supporting role of an old general named Hil Dillenbeck. The dramatic structure of “Amsterdam” boils down to Dillenbeck delivering a speech on which the fate of American democracy in 1933 is said to depend.
Russell based his screenplay on an actual event. Because at that time there were quite a few supporters of Hitler and Mussolini in America, especially in the wealthy circles. There were even concrete coup plans. “Amsterdam”, however, like a narrative high-wire act, virtuously keeps in the balance how serious (or how idiotic) the whole thing really was. Again, the possibilities of relating the film to the present are more than clear. The plutocrats who think they can install a dictator with naïve veterans are real in America today, and it doesn’t take long to find a candidate for the role of the new leader.
But “Amsterdam” is anything but a political treatise. Rather, it’s proof that between all the superhero movies and lots of do-it-yourself drama, genuine talent still exists in American cinema. It seems, however, that David O. Russell has gone a little too far with his penchant for subtle humor this time around. The film critics in the USA didn’t get much with “Amsterdam”. Above all, it was criticized that the story never really gets to a point. But that is exactly what should be seen as an advantage. David O. Russell certainly placed the many references to modern art in his film with care; There was one thing he probably didn’t want: a classic comedy of the kind that came out so numerous in the 1930s.
“Amsterdam” is a modern comedy, a great play with form, also a joyful failure in the face of the impossible task of doing justice to today’s political conditions in America. An act of moral courage maybe even, entertaining every second in detail, and always really great art.