‘Occupied City’ Review: Steve McQueen Breaks With Doc Convention in a Provocative Look at Amsterdam During World War II
It’s no surprise that Steve McQueen, a visual artist turned director, takes an unorthodox approach to nonfiction. Without a single interview or frame of archival material, he connects past and present Occupied City, a documentary that challenges and rewards patience. Combining an elegantly lensed visual portrait of contemporary Amsterdam with a matter-of-fact oral account of the city during its occupation by Germany, McQueen’s four-plus-hour film shares the exhaustiveness of such Holocaust-chronicle magnum opuses as Max Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity and Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. But its perspective is entirely fresh, eschewing the standard, and more readily engrossing, nonfiction custom of first-person testimony and faces in dramatic close-up. Peering into the liminal place where history’s ghosts linger, McQueen stirs up something more complex than emotion.
Narrator Melanie Hyams’ melodic voice maintains an even keel as she delivers a litany of atrocities, betrayals and protests that convulsed the city, as well as the underground heroism that tried to steady it, during the first five years of the 1940s. The camera is often fixed as people stroll or jog or play games, dine at cafes, swim and sun themselves, ice-skate and sled. Life goes on, season to season, while Hyams speaks of horrendous things.
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A striking encounter between then and now.
She begins at each location by announcing the address, then details the murders, suicides, skirmishes, arrests or escapes that took place there. Sometimes McQueen and DP Lennert Hillege reveal the interiors of apartments and we can admire their serenity and beauty and comforts while their inhabitants exercise, watch the news, play the guitar, dance to the radio or sign in to work-from-home Zoom meetings. At the end of many of these précis, Hyams declares the original building “demolished.” But here, in this moment, something is resurrected.
The narration is written by Bianca Stigter, whose book Atlas of an Occupied City (Amsterdam 1940-1945) is the doc’s inspiration. McQueen’s spouse and an Amsterdam native, Stigter explored the fate of Europe’s Jews Three Minutes: A Lengthening — in many ways a film that occupies the opposite end of the spectrum from this one, concise and constructed from vintage footage, rescued and restored. In both cases, though, the idea of absence as a presence is the guiding philosophy.
Occupied City visits about 130 sites, a fraction of those explored in Stigter’s book, but still a lot. Without ceremony or introduction, the documentary’s voiceover begins, and it’s soon clear that the steady barrage of historical information is also a lot, an earful that we can’t possibly absorb word for word in its entirety, certainly not on first viewing. The narration isn’t a commentary on the visuals; they’re two complementary but separate channels. Sometimes there are rhymes between them, but mostly there’s a fascinating and evocative friction that generates a third channel, one of contemplation. As McQueen puts it in the film’s production notes, “You kind of go onto another mode, and it’s okay to drift in and out.”
The director initially had the idea for the film in 2005, when Stigter published a first, brief version of her book. That he began working on it years later, just before the COVID lockdown policies shuttered much of the Netherlands and the rest of the world, presents rich parallels. They’re parallels that might test some viewers’ willingness to look at very recent events from a point of view that questions the official story.
McQueen captures Amsterdam under curfew for the first time since World War II. Storefronts are boarded up. The camera glides above and through the empty nighttime streets. In a high-end restaurant, formerly the site of a property owned by a Jewish family murdered by the Nazis, oversize teddy bears occupy tables to prevent them from being used, in the name of social distancing. The helmer witnesses protests that arose over the past few years — gatherings promoting climate justice, others denouncing racism, and, perhaps most uncomfortably to the point, those urging COVID-policy transparency.
The narration details the chipping away of citizens’ rights, and the ways that the Nazi regime demonized not only Jews but all dissenters and anyone who didn’t fit the Aryan mold — Romani, homosexuals, Freemasons, Jehovah’s Witnesses. Members of the resistance movement were labeled terrorists, many of them murdered. Onscreen, crowds gather to raise their voices against pandemic-era protocols. Aiming to silence them, police move in on horseback, in helicopters, in armored trucks, threatening violence. “Can we talk about it?” reads one woman’s sign. It’s easy to look at the clash between authoritarianism and disobedience as a historical relic; Occupied City offers a charged and exhilarating reminder — or warning — that we’re making history here and now.
Well-chosen music recordings as well as the score by Oliver Coates (Aftersun) deepen the mournful but stirring gravity that courses through the film. Its diegetic selections include a thrashing experimental dirge and an almost comically gentle protest song urging “No more fascism now.” And a daring jolt arrives with the use of David Bowie’s “Golden Years” in a sequence filmed at a COVID vaccine center, a facility that seems to be specifically for elderly patients. The pop playfulness is jarring, the potential analogy at first off-putting; Hyams has been speaking of the Nazis’ roundup and transit centers, the places designed for funneling people to death camps. Some viewers might not forgive McQueen for this sequence, but I’ll take his boldness over approved party-line talking points any day.
There’s nothing boilerplate about the doc, which makes no mention of Amsterdam’s most famous story, that of Anne Frank, as the filmmaker asks us to look beyond the familiar. In the stories that unfold, a certain repetition becomes apparent: the suicides, the collaborators and informers, the networks for hiding people. Over the lengthy running time (with a built-in 15-minute intermission about halfway through), that repetition reveals just how intensely these patterns of despair and survival permeated Amsterdam between its 1940 occupation by Germany through its 1945 liberation.
The connections McQueen draws are about illuminating the past, not explaining it. There are no talking heads on hand to tell us why, during the Nazis’ reign, a far larger proportion of the Netherlands’ Jewish population was murdered than that of any other Western European country. Instead, there are sparks and specters: A denture-making lab was once an ice cream parlor; a prison where a man leapt to his death is now a school filled with stylish teens.
Working in 35mm, Hillege uses many symmetrical compositions to frame the city’s bustle and its stillness, its buildings both ancient and modern. He finds striking angles too, from an upper-floor window or through a bus windshield. The eloquent use of a gliding traveling shot recalls the way McQueen employed this visual tactic so effectively in his 2018 heist thriller. Widows, in that case wordlessly encapsulating the class strata of Chicago. Layer by layer, location by location, Occupied City builds a sense of place (as did the director’s Small Axe anthology at its strongest), from the museums to the famous red-light district, from the lush parks to a derelict Jewish cemetery. McQueen is on hand for municipal business too: the government photo ops, the official apologies, the commemorative ceremonies.
The closing sequence arrives seemingly out of left field, but it’s a perfect rejoinder to all the loss and suffering, and a sharp refutation of the us-vs.-them conception of racial identity that was the Nazis’ malignant engine — and which persists today. , in different forms, around this planet. With its composed surface and heartbreak pulse, Occupied City Avoids outright emotion until those final moments. And then, amazingly, it gives way to something celebratory. It’s one thing for feelings to burst forth, but it’s something else entirely, something soul-shaking and indefinable, after you’ve been communing with a city’s ghosts.
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