If a single individual may be said to “personify” the Holocaust—a status that is surely an unbearable burden—that person must be Anne Frank. Her diary, compiled as a series of letters addressed “Dear Kitty” and kept for more than 2 years until her arrest on August 4, 1944, has come to symbolize the plight of millions of Jews during the Nazi terror. “The Diary of a Young Girl” (1947) includes photos of Anne and the people she hid with, plus a map of the secret annex in the house on Prinsengracht .
For a personal insight into Vincent van Gogh’s life and art, read Ken Wilkie’s “The van Gogh File: A Journey of Discovery” (1990). What began as a routine magazine assignment in 1972 to coincide with the opening of the Van Gogh Museum became exactly what the book’s subtitle indicates: Wilkie followed Van Gogh’s trail through the Netherlands, Belgium, England, and France. Along the way, he met some of the last surviving people to have met the artist.
Nicolas Freeling’s “Love in Amsterdam” (1962) was the first in his series of Inspector Piet Van der Valk detective novels, and even though it’s the Amsterdam of almost a half century ago, the city is easily recognizable, and something of a co-protagonist. Much the same could be said of Alistair MacLean’s thriller “Puppet on a Chain” (1969). In 1980 Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom set his finest work, “Rituals,” on the streets of Amsterdam, while Sylvie Matton captures Rembrandt’s descent into bankruptcy all too vividly in 1997’s “Rembrandt’s Whore.”
For non-fiction, Simon Schama’s “The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age” (1987) lets you inside Amsterdam’s greatest period and is simultaneously lighthearted and scholarly. Most of the 700 pages feature works of art that are explained in the text. Schama succeeds in his intention “to map out the moral geography of the Dutch mind, adrift between the fear of deluge and the hope of moral salvage.”
Amsterdam-born film director Paul Verhoeven is probably the best-known Dutch filmmaker—although that doesn’t mean that Verhoeven’s Hollywood films, such as “Basic Instinct,” “Robocop,” and “Starship Troopers,” contain anything inspired by his hometown. Closer to home is his wartime resistance drama “Soldier of Orange” (1977), starring Jeroen Krabbé and Rutger Hauer. Another wartime drama, “The Assault,” won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1986.
Amsterdam starred as the darkly atmospheric setting of the underworld in the thriller “Puppet on a Chain” (1972), based on the novel of the same name by Scottish writer Alistair MacLean—which contained a memorable chase sequence on the canals. And it played a supporting role in the James Bond movie “Diamonds Are Forever” (1971). In “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (2003), Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth star in an appropriately moody interpretation of the “backstory” to the Vermeer painting, set and partly filmed in Delft.
Should you want to dine on a movie set, head for Chinese restaurant Nam Kee in Amsterdam , which played a notable role in the Dutch red-hot romance flick “De Oesters van Nam Kee” (“The Oysters of Nam Kee”; 2002). Amsterdam also features in crime movies “Ocean’s Twelve” starring George Clooney and “Layer Cake,” starring a soon-to-be James Bond Daniel Craig—both were made in 2004.
About the only well-known song in English to feature Holland in a starring role is “Tulips from Amsterdam” (1956), which was originally written in German. This dose of concentrated saccharine keeps the unlikely company of pot-smoking, sex-tourism, and gay parades as a popular image of the city. Kids might likely be more familiar with “A Windmill in Old Amsterdam” (1965), which tells a heart-warming tale of “a little mouse with clogs on, going clip-clippety-clop on the stair.”
Amsterdam has been immortalized in a few pop songs, however, including “Ballad of John and Yoko” by John Lennon following the pair’s notorious “bed-in” at the Amsterdam Hilton in 1969. And Neil Finn of New Zealand band Crowded House wrote the following lyrics after spending a wasted weekend in the coffeehouses of Amsterdam: “Lying in the streets of Amsterdam/Nearly fell under a tram,” which are hardly going to win any prizes for sentiment but probably echo the experiences of many a newbie visitor to Amsterdam.
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