Crime Scene #4: ‘Amsterdamned’ – The City Is Always Sinking

Amsterdamned Essay - 1988 Dick Maas Movie Film

Crime Scene is a monthly Vague Visages column about the relationship between crime cinema and movie locations. This Amsterdamned essay contains spoilers. Dick Maas’ 1988 film features Huub Stapel, Monique van de Ven and Serge-Henri Valcke. Check out VV movie reviews, along with cast/character articles, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings, at the home page.


One of the recurring themes of this column — which has thus far covered New York, Los Angeles and Paris — is that the city, as depicted in crime cinema, is always dying, always just out of reach. In Pickup on South Street, it’s the gradual disappearance of New York’s working-class neighborhoods. In Collateral, it’s the stifling burden of the car, and the coming of the digital era that shifts the tectonic plates of L.A. In Bob le Flambeur, the seedy nightlife of an imagined Paris is always populated by those on their last legs, gradually being cleared away by the arrival of the tourist.

Seediness and tourism, of course, are two essential tropes of the modern-day Amsterdam. The explosion of cheap Airbnb lets, budget airline flights and the attraction of easy access to sex and substances have driven local residents away from the center of Amsterdam, resulting in a city not of neighborhoods, communities and meeting points, but of interchangeable souvenir shops, tacky bars and empty flats. The tide has started to turn — in recent years, the city’s council has announced increasingly more stringent rules on Airbnbs and tourism. What was once an open, famously relaxed city has spun radically between both ends, stuck between its reputation and its residents. As a port town, Amsterdam always had a reputation for having an undercurrent of danger (all port cities do), and I wonder if the drive to “clean up” the community whilst essential for the good of the citizenry, will also be what kills off this essential seediness once and for all.

I caught Amsterdamned at Forbidden Worlds Film Festival on a giant IMAX screen, and was struck by both how much Amsterdam has changed, and yet also how some of these concerns remain the same. Dick Maas’ film takes place in the late 80s. The opening shots depict the POV of something in Amsterdam’s canals, as it slinks through the postcard landmarks, and eventually lands in the red light district, surrounded by drunk tourists. A sex worker gets away from a lecherous taxi driver and then disappears. The next morning, her body is found, killed by the same creature from the water. Enter the protagonist, detective Eric Visser (Huub Stapel), as he sets to work. With bodies piling up in the canals, it soon becomes clear that Visser is dealing with a serial killer.

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Amsterdamned Essay - 1988 Dick Maas Movie Film

Visser is a very rock ‘n’ roll cop. He fucks, he drinks — he stops bad guys on his commute to work. And Visser is not afraid to rip up the rulebook. The Amsterdam he lives in is very much the Amsterdam that has firmly lodged itself in the mind of many a tourist — full of nighttime excesses and an easygoing attitude to the pleasures of the flesh.

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Amsterdamned makes great use of the city throughout, so much that one wonders if the tourist board had something to do with the funding. Helicopter shots take in the full breadth of Amsterdam, and in one scene, the city’s mayor is concerned that hype over the serial killer is only likely to draw in more tourists fascinated by his presence, a tip of the hat to all the dark attractions. It’s not all sex and violence, of course — the Rijksmuseum gets a look-in as Visser admires a Rembrandt painting.

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Amsterdamned Essay - 1988 Dick Maas Movie Film

But more noticeable is how Amsterdam is captured on the cusp of its era of mass tourism, commercialism and globalization. The protagonists often eat Americanized crap, for example: McDonalds, ketchup on eggs (ketchup being an American invention), or hot dogs (initially a Frankfurt creation, though its global iteration is one pioneered by German migrants in the midwest). More conventional Dutch cuisine exists in a restaurant that Visser visits on a date, held in a stereotypical windmill. “Traditional” Dutch culture (or an idea of it) is relegated to a moneyed experience against the cheap mass production slowly overtaking the general culture. The detritus of modern culture also pollutes the famous canals: when the cops are dredged for victim evidence, there’s plenty of random plastic tat, and two early victims of the killer are pollution researchers, looking for evidence that a nearby waste pipe is leaking chemicals into the water.

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These jabs at globalization appear throughout Amsterdamned. Tourists frequently get the rum end of one of Visser’s many chases through the city via two major set pieces: a police car chasing a motorbike through the street, and an epic boat chase later on through the canals. The history of Dutch architecture is a history of how to make the most of every square centimeter. This is a country that exists mostly below sea level, where living space is reclaimed through the digging of canals and waterways, where centuries of land reclamation projects have created a space-conscious culture. 

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Amsterdamned Essay - 1988 Dick Maas Movie Film

In the 2000 book Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, soccer author David Winner suggests that the Netherlands has historically been at the forefront of football tactics from the late 60s onwards because the Dutch conceptualization of space necessitates the ability to make the most possible use of it on the pitch. While filmmaking is a totally different ball game, Maas alights on something similar in Amsterdamned’s chase sequences. 

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Maas makes fantastic use of the narrow environment for stunts, the already-small police car barely able to fit through the streets, resulting in plentiful delightful crashes. Of course, the bike is able to get away precisely because the driver can go places in the city where the car cannot. The speedboat chase is even more gleefully liberated, with tourists and diners getting thoroughly and repeatedly soaked. The Bond films have made hay of great boat chases in their history but none have managed to be quite as ecstatic and long as this one, as Maas was seemingly overjoyed at the opportunity to show off the architecture (the canalside point-of-view allows for plenty of wide-angle tracking shots of both boats), and punish those who dare congest the waterways with their presence. Amsterdamned can’t decide if it wants to embrace those who interact with the city or kill them, and this contradiction is part of the film’s slimy, schlocky charm.

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Amsterdamned Essay - 1988 Dick Maas Movie Film

One does wonder if there’s a certain reactionary element to Amsterdamned. Perhaps the criticism of globalization, along with the maverick cop and the sidelining of “traditional” Dutch culture, counterintuitively aligns the film with a more conservative and small-minded Netherlands, one that’s all tulips, windmills and wooden clogs. Amsterdamned sees small-town Netherlands as a bucolic paradise that the modern day has drawn away from. The return of law and order is essential to the return of Maas’ imaginary Netherlands, one that the far-right of the country has made hay of, from the appropriation of the recent farmer’s protests in the country for the spreading of far-right conspiracist narratives to the long-standing racist rhetoric of figures such as Geert Wilders. 

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The conservative Netherlands has always existed side-by-side with drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll Netherlands, collapsing and colliding together. It’s arguably one of the central tenets of the pre-Hollywood work of Paul Verhoeven, but it’s also in Amsterdamned, because what is a cop thriller without a reactionary streak? That collapse and contradiction, depicting a city on the cusp of its most nihilistically capitalistic era — hollowing out historic neighborhoods, selling its soul to the devil of mass tourism — against a populace still embracing the anarchy of the seedy Amsterdam of decades past, returns once again to the film’s opening theme: the city of our imaginations is always dying, always out of reach.

Fedor Tot (@redrightman) is a Yugoslav-born, Wales-raised freelance film critic and editor, specializing in the cinema of the ex-Yugoslav region. Beyond that, he also has an interest in film history, particularly in the way film as a business affects and decides the function of film as an art.

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