A four-and-a-half-hour WWII documentary that includes not a single frame of archival footage or speaking testimony, Steve McQueen’s provocative but emotionally oppressive “Occupied City” refracts the fading memory of Nazi-occupied Amsterdam through the prism of the city’s most recent COVID lockdown: a rare break in the flow of time, which McQueen eagerly seized as an opportunity to gauge his eroding powers.
The conceit of the film is as simple as it is almost immediately paralyzing: each of its 130 fragments is dedicated to a different address throughout the city, the past and present of these sites shatter into two parallel timelines that are offered to us all in one time. While our ears listen to monotonous narrator Melanie Hyams listing war crimes that took place in a particular location in the early 1940s, our eyes watch equally clinical – if far more benign – 35mm film footage. of the same address as it existed in the early 1920s. , when Berliners were forced to abide by the city’s first curfew since World War II.
Amsterdam hasn’t been bombed as often as other European cities, and this lack of cancellation makes it a remarkably lucid setting for a film so gripping by how the present coexists with its memory of the past. The darkest chapter in Amsterdam’s history hasn’t been erased or razed, it’s simply been remodeled (while Hyams’ voiceover notes that many of the film’s locations have been demolished since WWII, it’s unclear whether those locations haunted were targeted for exorcisms). Blissfully unsuspecting children play in the same park where Himmler once inspected Nazi soldiers. The girls attend high school in a building that was once the headquarters of Hitler’s secret police. Messages of hope are graffitied on the pandemic-closed walls of the G-Star clothing store which now sits right on the spot where the first “No Jews” sign hung after the start of the German occupation.
These critical points stand out in an epic whose typical episode is at once more specific and banal. The chilly open, in which an elderly woman trudges into her cellar for supplies as Hyams’ voice reads a list of the Jews who once hid there, is decidedly action-packed compared to many of the snippets that follow. It gains further potency from being the first pass in a film whose relentless inventory of disembodied atrocities is designed to become white noise of the worst kind, as McQueen’s technique somehow damningly suggests that we’re less inclined to forget the story than as much as we are at tuning it out. To that end, half listening to Hyams’ numb narration as he repeats whatever awful thing once happened in this shop or that street corner emulates the divided awareness of Amsterdam itself, a city whose past is still quite palpable to sound like a whisper in your ear.
At no point during the interminable duration of “Occupied City” does the whisper get louder than this. McQueen’s pointillistic approach invites our minds to wander freely between then and now, his film is less interested in shuddering at the details of his horrific deeds than probing our ever-changing relationship to them, but the monotony of documentary resists deeper engagement. For all the fascinating questions it raises along the way, looking at this whole thing ultimately feels less instigating than isolating a single one of its 100-plus parts.
“Occupied City” is based on a book written by historian and filmmaker Bianca Stigter (McQueen’s partner), whose “Atlas of an Occupied City (Amsterdam 1940-1945)” provides the blueprint and full text for McQueen’s film. A door-to-door inventory of Amsterdam’s losses during the occupation, the book’s sum of objective details has morphed into a vast, harrowing catalog of the violence that has affected nearly every inch of the city. Like Alain Resnais before her, whose “Night and Fog” drew the horrors of the Holocaust from the piles of shoes and hair Auschwitz victims left behind, Stigter understood that the unfathomable is best conveyed through scale storytelling. Her documentary, the harrowing “Three Minutes: A Stretch” from last year, deconstructed three minutes of pre-war home video into a feature-length microcosm of what Hitler stole from history.
While the 262-minute “Occupied City” is technically more than a Solid vegetable or animal fat for cooking more than anything else, given that McQueen’s film omits several hundred addresses included in its source material), its patience-testing runtime still promises a reward that never comes. Its slow accumulation of detail fails to create the kind of emotional undertow that might reward the decision to present this A24-funded project as a four-hour film rather than an installation that viewers could pop in and out of as they please. . As amazing as it is to consider the sheer immensity of the horrors Amsterdam experienced during the occupation, even more amazing is how quickly they soften into the background noise. Instead of questioning the relationship of the present with the past, “Occupied City” more frequently recreates the conditions of its natural forgetfulness: the past is fixed, and the present is moving further and further away from it.
McQueen’s film speaks to that tension ad nauseam, as its non-linear account of Nazi-occupied Amsterdam also serves as a strictly chronological document of the city’s pandemic years (starting with the announcement of the first lockdown and ending sometime after the lifting of restrictions). Yet, looking at the city through McQueen’s detached, even clinical, point of view, Amsterdam seems to be in the throes of forgetting itself.
At least that’s the most generous interpretation I could salvage from the long sequences in which McQueen pairs footage of the city’s recent anti-lockdown protests with a narrative of the city’s anti-Nazi resistance. In a vacuum, merging the two would appear to be wildly disingenuous. But in a film where a housebound kid plays with an Oculus Rift VR headset in the living room rather than hiding from the Gestapo in the attic, that reading doesn’t quite work. McQueen stops short of mocking those who have likened the inconvenience of public safety measures to the horror of fascism, but he seems to be struck by the fact that Amsterdam, of all cities, would have so little perspective on what it really means to be oppressed (the rising specter of current fascism is kept in the background, lest this film risk eliciting a palpable sense of urgency, but the threat does not go unnoticed).
Much, much later, McQueen’s camera lingers on a climate rally in the same park where the Nazis once congregated, as if to offer a more promising take on the idea that the future always invites us to move forward, even when the past struggles to make its way. (as one speaker at an event honoring kidnapped African slaves in the Netherlands puts it: “Reconciliation around a shared past makes room for the future.”) Too numb to capture how time moves through a city, McQueen’s film does better at articulating how a city like Amsterdam moves through time. What does he choose to remember and what does he allow himself to forget? Is architecture a container for memory or a monument to its absence? If nothing else, “Occupied City” reflects a world awash in the gritty facts of history like never before. And, despite and because of its boredom, McQueen’s film acknowledges that how we relate to these facts will determine the future we inherit from them.
“Occupied City” premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. A24 will release it later this year.