Springtime in Amsterdam Film Dutch National Opera Naxos NBD0169V Blu-Ray

Springtime in Amsterdam
A film by Christof Loy (2021)
Annette – Annette Dasch (soprano)
Thomas – Thomas Oliemans (baritone)
Theresa – Theresa Kronthaler (mezzo-soprano)
Norman – Norman Reinhardt (tenor)
Henk – Henk Poort
Sunnyi – Sunnyi Melles
Matthias – Barry Atsma
Chorus of Dutch National Opera
Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra/Marko Letonja
Metropole Orchestra/Marko Letonja
Dutch String Collective
Filming locations and dates not supplied
Naxos NBD0169V Blu-ray [94]

Springtime in Amsterdam marks the first venture into feature films by the acclaimed and multi-award winning opera director Christof Loy. It is set during the Covid pandemic – which, somewhat curiously, is never specifically named but referred to euphemistically as “the crisis” – and focuses on the bittersweet romantic entanglements of two couples. Annette is a German opera singer who, waiting between trains at Amsterdam’s railway station, is accosted by the tourist guide Thomas. Initially seeing Annette as something of a golden goose, he convinces here to stay in a room in his apartment which he claims is in use as an official annexe during renovation work at a nearby swanky hotel. Even after Annette eventually discovers the truth, something of a romance begins to develop between the two of them. Meanwhile, Norman, an American who has come to Europe to explore his family’s roots, enjoys his own liaison with the hotel chambermaid Theresa, who, unknown to him, moonlights as a prostitute in the city’s red light district. Apart from those four main characters, we encounter only three others – Henk, who is both Thomas’s flatmate and the hotel receptionist, the bar hostess Sunnyi and Matthias, who is Annette’s agent. Though Matthias’s role is the smallest, it is unique in two respects. Firstly, it’s non-singing and, secondly, as you may have already noticed from the cast list, for some unexplained reason it’s the only one in which a character has not been accorded the same name as that of the real-life actor who’s taking the part.

As that outline suggests, Springtime in Amsterdam tells a relatively simple and straightforward story and, at an overall length of only 94 minutes, it certainly doesn’t dawdle. It still finds time, nevertheless, to incorporate no less than 18 individual musical episodes that, once the necessary exposition of the basic plotline has been accomplished, really do come thick and fast upon each other for the rest of the film [full details are provided below]. Unusually for a screen musical, it takes its vocal material from a wide variety of already-existing sources. Most of those are operettas, all of which – with the exception of Carl Millöcker’s Gasparone which dates from 1884 – had originally been premiered in the 1920s or 1930s: Emmerich Kálmán’s Die Bajadere (1921) and Gräfin Mariza (1924), Oscar Strauss’s Eine Frau, die weiss, was Sie will (1932) and Drei Walzer (1935), Johann Strauss II’s Casanova (arr. Benatzky, 1928), Leo Fall’s Madame Pompadour (1922), Franz Lehár’s Der Zarewitsch (1927) and Frederike (1928), Jean Gilbert’s Das Weib in Purpur (1923) and Paul Abraham’s Viktoria und ihr Husar (1930). Much of the other music that pops up in the film also derives from the inter-war period. Broadway provides the overture to Vincent Youmans’s No, no, Nannette (1924) as well as The song is you from Jerome Kern’s Music in the air (1932). American popular music is represented by bandleader Walter Blaufuss’s 1919 hit Your eyes have told me so. Even an inter-war classical piece gets a look-in in the form of the intermezzo from Zoltán Kodály’s 1927 Háry János suite. On a few occasions, the film abandons its primary musical focus on the Weimar era and showcases a few more modern chansons with an appropriately local flavour – Jacques Brel’s Amsterdam (1964), Jean Ferrat’s Het Dorp (1970) and Peter Shott’s Aan de Amsterdamsche Grachten (1993).

If it isn’t already obvious that music takes a central place in Springtime in Amsterdam, the point is further reinforced by the fact that the four primary roles have been taken by professional-singers-who-can-act rather than professional-actors-who-can-sing. The precise manner in which music is deployed in the film is, however, sufficiently distinctive as to warrant a little more detailed exploration.

Anyone expecting Christof Loy to play it safe on his cinematic debut by producing something entirely conventional is in for a surprise, for he has chosen instead to impose upon the piece his own personal style of storytelling and characterisation. Traditionally, the directors of screen musicals have tried to integrate songs into the action as seamlessly as possible, deploying all the cinematic tricks in the book to convince us that characters spontaneously expressing themselves through singing is both natural and realistic. Mr Loy, however, seems slyly intent on heading in the opposite direction. On a number of occasions, we find him eschewing realistic, seamless integration and instead utilising a variety of means to draw our attention to the musical episodes’ sheer artificiality. While a single such episode might be dismissed as a novice filmmaker’s forgivable error, the fact that there are, as we will see, so many of them suggests instead that they reflect the creative decision of a thoughtful and very experienced artist.

Loy seems to have adopted something of a Verfremdungseffekt approach that challenges the concept of realism and instead stresses the story’s and characters’ theatricality. From time to time he even cheekily goes so far as to suggest that we are actually in an auditorium, rather than a real-life setting, as he shoots scenes through a doorway or window frame that thereby acts as a sort of proscenium arch. To select just a single example, there is a lengthy shot in Aan de Amsterdamsche Grachten in which the camera peers through a doorway to observe Thomas, some way away and with his back turned to us, as he wistfully plays the piano. Mr Loy – well aware that, if compelled to observe a character without the benefit of those close-ups that might bring our subjective emotions into play, we will, albeit subconsciously, distance ourselves psychologically from his situation – is surely and knowingly manipulating us at that point.

Other directorial decisions also serve to generate a subconscious feeling that the film isn’t depicting “reality” in a traditional cinematic manner. There are, in particular, several somewhat surreal episodes that force us to question what we are actually watching. Having, for instance, been checked into his hotel by the receptionist Henk, Norman crosses the foyer to find that the lift operator is – Henk! Equally unsettling is the moment in Thomas’s apartment when Annette opens a door to unexpectedly reveal, with no explanation at all, a hitherto unnoticed instrumental ensemble that thereupon accompanies her rendition of Ich bin eine Frau, die weiss, was sie will as if it’s the most natural thing in the world (it’s a joke that the director obviously enjoyed, as he repeats it later when Annette sings Je ne suis pas ce que l’on pense). A similar point is made as Henk sings Het Dorp, when the camera suddenly pulls back to reveal a quite unsuspected accompanist at a piano. There’s an even more radically disorientating camera operation occurs during Annette’s Ich bin eine Frau, die weiss, was sie will when a few seconds of action are actually filmed upside-down. Then there’s the point when half a dozen of the film’s extras suddenly appear out of nowhere for no apparent reason other than to sit on a bed and watch Annette singing Je ne suis pas ce que l’on pense. Finally, there are a couple of instances where actors abandon realism completely by momentarily breaking the fourth wall and engaging directly with us viewers. At the end of Ich bin eine Frau, die weiss, was sie will, for instance, Annette looks directly at the camera gives a broad wink. She does much the same thing at one point in Mädels gibt es auf der Welt. Similarly, after she jokes that not everyone will necessarily have enjoyed Thomas’s heartfelt account of Ach, das ich doch ein Räuber wär, he directs his own exasperated but knowing look to the camera in true Oliver Hardy fashion.

Another issue that may bring you up short as you watch and listen is an occasional mismatch between the original lyrics of the musical excerpts and the dramatic situations to which they are being applied. Sometimes, as in Annette’s Ich bin eine Frau, die weiss, was sie will, a few of the recycled lines or the sentiments expressed make no apparent sense to Springtime in Amsterdam’splot at all.On other occasions, as, for instance, when Theresa sings in the nuns’ chorus, the lyrics may be generally appropriate to the character’s dramatic situation(the nun’s hope that a hero will rescue her from the convent is paralleling Theresa’s wish for one to free her from a life of prostitution) but several all-too-precise references – in that particular case to convents, high altars and the like – draw attention to themselves by their very incongruity and are, at least momentarily, distracting. Given that the lyrics in at least one of the other songs, Fraulein, bitte, wollen Sie Shimmy tanzen?, have been amended, with the interpolation of topical references to Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Richard Branson, the retention of those bizarrely inappropriate period inconsistencies and anomalies elsewhere appears, therefore, to be a consciously deliberate directorial decision.

A final way in which our sense of “reality” is challenged is via an apparent occasional disconnect between the film’s musical soundtrack and its visual images. Sometimes – in, for instance, the scene set on the railway station platform (Fraulein, bitte, wollen Sie Shimmy tanzen?) or the one in which Norman sings Wenn es Abend wird in his hotel bedroom– the acoustics simply seem inappropriate, with the soundtrack more suggestive of a somewhat cavernous concert hall than the open air or an intimate space with minimal sonic reverberation. This is presumably what’s being referenced when the disc’s accompanying booklet refers somewhat obliquely to the deployment of “big sound” and points out that “the musical numbers are complimented by a special soundtrack” without actually explaining what that means. Similarly, characters may be depicted on screen singing to just a single partner who’s only a metre or so away from them, yet they can sound as if they are projecting their voices out, over a full orchestra, to an audience of several thousand people. I have to tell you that I watched this with a friend who didn’t find it an issue at all – it is, after all, an accepted convention in hundreds of movie musicals. Usually, though, clever balancing is used to divert the audience’s attention from any sonic inconsistency and, to my own ears, that is not always the case on this occasion. Meanwhile, coordination between the soundtrack and the movements of the actors’ mouths (presumably they are miming to a recording made earlier in a studio?) can also seem a bit hit and miss. Indeed, sometimes it isn’t even attempted at all. In Casanova’s well-known nuns’ chorus (Nonnenchorund Lied der Laura), for example, we first hear Theresa “singing” the solo part with her mouth closed, but just a moment later she is seen singing it normally. The same thing occurs when Annette sings Warum hast du mich wachgeküsst? Once again, though, my fellow watcher wasn’t too bothered. The singers, he suggested, might be initially internalising the song before subsequently expressing it verbally. That, of course, is certainly something that we are used to seeing in filmed musicals. Even if that that was the intention, however, I remain unconvinced by the way in which, in this instance, the transition between internalised song and outright singing has been effected – although, as you will have gathered by now, I suspect that that may well have been Mr Loy’s intention from the start.

All these points do add up. They serve to disorientate us, to keep us questioning what we’re watching and, ultimately if subconsciously, to discourage our subjective and emotional involvement with the film’s “unrealistic” story and characters. As I have already noted, there are plenty of indications that Christof Loy’s intention is to impose his own distinctively objective style of storytelling and characterisation on the film – and, as MusicWeb readers with good memories may recall, one or two of my colleagues have previously suggested that he has past form in that respect. His similarly emotionally-distancing 2009 production of Alban Berg’s Lulu certainly managed to alienate – in the negative sense of the word – both of our Seen & Heard reviewers Mark Berry and José M. Irurzun, though it is worth noting that when, a couple of years later, it eventually appeared on DVD, our colleague Colin Clarke found Loy’s approach not only generally very effective but “fascinating… truly thought-provoking and stimulating”.

The emphasis that I have placed on the director’s vision as being of absolutely central importance to Springtime in Amsterdam might make it sound as if the film’s going to be a bit hard-going, but in fact it turns out to be not only as “thought-provoking and stimulating” as that Lulu production but also a very enjoyable romp. In the first place, its sheer pace serves it very well and, even if, as already suggested, you may not fully invest in its characters, neither will you be bored by them. The film’s music has also been well chosen. By the inter-war period, some operetta composers were maintaining traditional styles of writing while others – notably Emmerich Kálmán and, especially, Paul Abraham – were incorporating elements of jazz and other popular music forms into their scores. As a result, the film’s cleverly sequenced programme of excerpts is varied enough to create an enjoyably mixed programme mounted in a range of well-chosen settings. Livelier numbers such as Fraulein, bitte, wollen Sie Shimmy tanzen?, Ich bin eine Frau, die weiss, was sie will and Mädels gibt es auf der Welt are given the physical space to accommodate energetic dance moves. Meanwhile, more low-key or downbeat numbers are set in restricted locations where the absence of action isn’t so obvious. Theresa, for example, despairs of her life as a prostitute firstly as she prays in church (Nonnenchorund Lied der Laura) and later as she sits on display in one of Amsterdam’s red light district’s infamous shop windows (Einer wird kommen). The addition of three modern chansons by Jean Ferrat (Het Dorp), Jacques Brel (Amsterdam) and Peter Shott (Aan de Amsterdamsche Grachten) – all of them rather sad, nostalgic paeans to a lost past – give an extra rather bittersweet flavour to the score, especially when as idiomatically and effectively performed as they are here.

The anonymous booklet writer suggests that Springtime in Amsterdam’s singing actors are following in a tradition pioneered by Yvonne Printemps and Sacha Guitry. I will leave it to others with a better knowledge of French cinema history to decide whether or not they concur, but it is beyond doubt that, whether singing or acting, the leads perform with consummate skill. Annette Dasch, in particular, throws herself enthusiastically and convincingly into her role, whether shimmying energetically along the Amsterdam Centraal railway platform or tipsily vamping a visibly reluctant Norman Reinhardt in a hotel bar (Josef, ach Josef, was bist du so keusch). Meanwhile, in the scenes that he shares with her, Thomas Oliemans demonstrates a winning flair for comic timing. Of the other pair, Theresa Kronthaler tugs effectively at the heartstrings with her plaintive delivery of Einer wird kommen, while, if Norman Reinhardt doesn’t make quite the same impact as the other three leading actors, that is largely, I think, a reflection of his somewhat underwritten part. Henk Poort, well-known in The Netherlands as a star of stage musicals, holds us in the palm of his hand as he delivers the semi-spoken Het Dorp and then delights us with a creditable percussion solo on a rack of wine bottles in the Háry János intermezzo. Meanwhile, a very strikingly delivered account of Jacques Brel’s Amsterdam showcases the Swiss film and theatre actress Sunnyi Melles in her role as a bar hostess. The interpolated song may be an entirely unnecessary addition to the plot but it certainly adds a welcome sweet’n’sour dash of cynicism and poignancy to the overall mix.

The Chorus of Dutch National Opera lends strong vocal support as required, notably in the Nonnenchor from Casanova. Meanwhile the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, the Metropole Orchestra and the Dutch String Collective don’t put a foot wrong, even though, somewhat annoyingly, their respective contributions to the soundtrack aren’t individually specified in the booklet. Slovenian conductor Marko Letonja has featured quite frequently in MusicWeb’s pages over the years, notably thanks to a well-received series of discs of Felix Weingartner’s symphonies on the cpo label (review, review, review and review). He seems, however, to have more than a single string to his bow as the booklet note reveals his “soft spot for popular music”. While, I think, we can probably put aside any notion that Mr Letonja spends his evenings singing along to Beyoncé’s greatest hits or annoying the neighbours by playing his heavy metal collection at full blast, he certainly does seem to have an affinity for Springtime in Amsterdam’s tuneful inter-war repertoire. His accounts are all delivered with an attractive blend of idiomatic style and sheer aplomb.

Although its setting is the Covid era, Springtime in Amsterdam has been given something of a period feel. Its marketing materials make a great thing about that aspect of the production, referencing (unspecified) similarities to the films that Printemps and Guitry made in 1930s 1940s and 1950s. The booklet that accompanies the Blu-ray disc also claims that Mr Loy’s movie “connects to the style of [film director] Jacques Demy”. Once again, that’s a rather vaguely expressed suggestion, but, while it’s some time since I last saw Demy’s 1964 sung-through masterpiece Les parapluies de Cherbourg, I can appreciate that both films share certain similarities in mood and tone. There’s one thing, though, that will immediately send you nostalgically back in time as you slip the disc into your player, for Springtime in Amsterdam has been filmed in a 16:9 screen format, so that if you view it, like many of us will, on a wide-screen TV, black vertical bars appear at each side of the image to crop it into a less extended shape, just as if you’re watching a genuinely old classic movie. It’s a clever and evocative touch.

Coming to the release’s more up-to-date technical features, Springtime in Amsterdam’s picture quality is excellent, with my Blu-ray disc showing no sign of the dreaded judder that can sometimes manifest itself. The audio is also clear, even if the aforementioned “big sound” recording sometimes threatens to overwhelm the odd softly sung vocal line. Allowing for the occasional outright textual incongruity to which I’ve already referred, the English subtitling has been well done – though I cannot, of course, speak for the Dutch, German, Japanese or Korean options. Sadly, there are no “bonus” features included on the disc, which is surely something of a missed opportunity in such an unusual and intriguing film. Interviews with the cast and, even better, with Mr Loy would have made enlightening additions.

This striking and enterprising new release from Dutch National Opera is a brave commercial venture but I’d expect it to appeal to anyone with a taste for late-period operetta or, indeed, imaginative and thought-provoking film-making. Incidentally, if you stick with the cast list until it has rolled to the very end, you will find a brief extra, wordless scene where we see the assembled cast in their real-life personae socialising over a celebratory drink. They appear to be enjoying themselves just as much as many of you will also, I suspect, enjoy this film.

Rob Maynard

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Production details
Christof Loy – story and film director
Laurens Neels – executive producer
Stef Kwinten – director of photography
Robby Duiveman – costumes
Thomas Wilhelm – choreography
Jurian Vermoolen – art director
Dutch National Opera – producer

Video details
BD-25 Blu-ray disc
Picture format: HD 16:9/1.55:1
Sound format: PCM stereo and DTS Master Audio 5.1
Region code: A, B, C
Sung in Dutch, German and English; Subtitles: Dutch, English, German, Japanese, Korean

Musical episodes
Vincent Youmans (1898-1946)
No, no, Nanette (1924); overture (revised Broadway version, 1971)
Emmerich Kálmán (1882-1953)
Die Bajadere (1921); Fraulein, bitte, wollen Sie Shimmy tanzen?
Gräfin Mariza (1924); Wenn es Abend wird (Lied Tassilo)
Oscar Strauss (1870-1954)
Eine Frau, die weiss, was Sie will (1932); Ich bin eine Frau, die weiss, was sie will
Walter Blaufuss (1883-1945)
Your eyes have told me so (1919)
Jean Ferrat (1930-2010)
Het Dorp (1970)
Johann Strauss II (1825-1899), arr. Ralph Benatzky (1884-1957)
Casanova (1928); Nonnenchor und Lied der Laura
Leo Fall (1873-1925)
Madame Pompadour (1922); Josef, ach Josef, was bist du so keusch
Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967)
Háry János suite (1927); intermezzo
Jacques Brel (1929-1978)
Amsterdam (1964)
Franz Lehár (1870-1948)
Der Zarewitsch (1927); Einer wird kommen
Jean Gilbert (1879-1942)
Das Weib in Purpur (1923); Mädels gibt es auf der Welt
Franz Lehár (1870-1948)
Frederike (1928); Warum hast du mich wachgeküsst?
Jerome Kern (1885-1945)
Music in the air (1932); The song is you
Carl Millöcker (1842-1899)
Gasparone (1884); Ach, dass ich doch ein Räuber wär
Oscar Strauss (1870-1954)
Les trois valses [French version of Drei Walzer (1935)]; Je ne suis pas ce que l’on pense
Paul Abraham (1892-1960)
Viktoria und ihr Husar (1930); Reich mir zum Abschied noch einmal die Hände
Peter Shott (1925-2000)
Aan de Amsterdamsche Grachten (1993)