Early in Steve McQueen’s remarkable documentary “Occupied City,” the film cuts through the interior of the elegant main hall of Amsterdam’s grand Royal Concertgebouw. In World War II, Nazi-German occupiers held events in the hall, but at one point in 1942 the names of the Jewish composers who graced the hall were covered up. Concerts continued, but there were no Jewish composers, conductors, orchestra musicians, concertgoers, or even names on the walls.
Shortly after the end of this episode, “Occupied City” moves to a new location, a nondescript, boarded-up storefront. The narrator explains that this was one of the first cafes in the city to ban Jews, in 1940. After a short time, the movie moves to another place, then another place, and another. And so it goes in this dense, gripping and epic-scale chronicle – running nearly four and a half hours, including a 15-minute intermission – that charts street by street, address by address, the fate of Amsterdam’s Jews during the Nazi occupation.
In total, the film investigates a staggering 130 addresses; This is a mapping that McQueen accomplished, somewhat surprisingly, without the use of archival footage. Instead, the director (whose previous films include “12 Years a Slave”) explores the city’s past through images of today’s daily Amsterdam life: inside and outside houses, in squares, on trams, shot over several years, starting in 2019. These 35mm images are accompanied by sounds recorded during shooting, bird sounds, etc. accompanied by sounds; musical pieces (some composed by Oliver Coates); and narration (delivered in the English version with dry composure by British voice actress Melanie Hyams).
McQueen’s decision to use only contemporary footage of Amsterdam in the film is as conceptually bold as it is effective; But it takes time to fully grasp what it does and why. Without ceremony, textual exposition or flashy introductory music, you are immersed in the gentle and noisy hustle and bustle of the city from the very first moment, and you stay there even as the film hopscotches through Amsterdam for miles and years. For example, the film opens with a daytime shot of a warmly lit corridor in what looks like an apartment, with a door opening onto the garden. It’s quiet except for the rustling of home comforts, the metallic tinkling of what sounds like silverware, and perhaps the faint chatter of a radio or television.
An unidentified woman enters and the narrative begins – as it does throughout – with the reading of an address that grounds you. This was once the office of a printer-publisher who died by suicide along with his wife and two sisters on May 15, 1940, the day the Netherlands surrendered to Germany. As the woman on the screen opens a trap door, the narrator continues and explains that many Jews hoped to escape to England, but “most of them could not find a boat to take them.” The dead man’s brother escaped and handed over the job to an employee who helped the Jews hide in the office. One hid “at the top of the elevator” for days.
McQueen continues this approach throughout the rest of the film, but with striking variations that create explicit and implicit connections, respectively. In one sunny episode, a warm spell of pleasure and play turns into a ghost story as a woman watches people glide along a frozen canal outside a building housing Jewish residents and resistance fighters. But elsewhere McQueen throws in uncommentary visuals, particularly in scenes involving people protesting pandemic quarantines and being met with water cannons by police. Although the film places the protesters and their freedoms in historical context through its unrelenting and harrowing narrative, these images raise the specter of state violence.
As “Occupied City” continues to juxtapose the city’s history with its present through chronicles of varying lengths chronicling the struggle, resistance, death and survival of the Jews, the film gains tremendous power. The pilot who shot down German planes before the Netherlands surrendered lived in one address; A 10-month-old baby was taken to the police station from another address; The following year the baby was killed in Auschwitz. Amsterdam, which McQueen reminds you over and over again, is occupied by both the living and the dead; it’s an obvious point that takes on a specific, profound resonance as the film progresses. As the narrator reminds you, most of the Jewish population of the Netherlands died in the Holocaust.
Unfortunately, among them was, of course, Anne Frank, whose name is mentioned several times in “Occupied City”. I think it’s notable that McQueen omits from this list the Prinsengracht 263 building, where his father’s employees ran the business while he, his family, and four others hid in the annex until they were betrayed and eventually deported to Auschwitz. The building has now become a tourist attraction, which may be one reason why McQueen avoided it. I think he also wanted to move the film away from the popular, commercially acceptable understanding of Frank, who adopted the most famous line from Frank’s diary: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are truly kind-hearted,” and might tone down that understanding. The barbarity of his murder.
McQueen’s film, as stated in the credits, is inspired by Bianca Stigter’s massive 2019 book “Atlas of the Occupied City (Amsterdam 1940-1945),” which Bianca Stigter described in an interview with the BBC as “a sort of travel guide.” has been informed”. Amsterdam’s past.” (Dutch Stigter and British McQueen are married and live in the Netherlands.) He wrote and helped produce “Occupied City” and also directed the feature film “A Extension: Three Minutes” (2022). Documentary about part of a home movie shot by American tourist David Kurtz of the Jewish community in a Polish village in 1938. Using only the footage from this piece, Stigter impressively reclaims a lost world face to face, second by second.
In “Occupied City”, time is stretched differently and despite the time passing, it passes much faster than you can imagine. Some of this has to do with the fluidity of McQueen’s filmmaking and how different parts cumulatively create power. But most of this has to do with how McQueen approaches the past. It is instructive that he did not structure the narrative chronologically. Instead, as the film moves from one address to the next and seasons and people pass on screen, the narrative jumps from 1940 to 1944, pausing in the moments before and after the war. For McQueen, history is not a neat little package that can be safely experienced and then forgotten. Here, history exists in every winter park and sunny room because it is persistently present and very much alive.
This article was first published in the New York Times.
MPA rating: PG-13
Running time: 4:22 minutes
How to watch: In theaters now