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Occupied City

  • Film
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Occupied City
Photograph: A24

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Steve McQueen memorialises Amsterdam’s Nazi occupation in a marathon doc that illuminates and frustrates in equal measure

Steve McQueen’s memorialisation of the brutal wartime suffering of Amsterdam and its Jewish population is free of archive footage, talking head interviews, visual fireworks and, really, any of the snappy tools you might expect a filmmaker to use to embroider four hours and twenty minutes of meaty documentary.

Instead of well-worn black-and-white clips of the city in wartime, the Hunger filmmaker uses fly-on-the-wall footage of Amsterdam during and just after Covid, while a voiceover evokes the ghosts of the Nazi occupation, the relentless pogrom against the city’s Jews, and its infamous ‘Hunger Winter’ of 1944/45. It’s comprehensive to the point of repetition, but to a degree, it works as an urban travelogue and an investigation of our relationship with the past.

A local affair for adopted Amsterdammer McQueen, who went out and filmed during breaks in lockdown, it’s also a family one. The doc is informed by a history book by McQueen’s wife and co-producer Bianca Stigter: ‘Atlas of an Occupied City, Amsterdam 1940-1945’ (Stigter also made the brilliant, much pithier 2021 Holocaust doc Three Minutes: A Lengthening). 

A calm, dispassionate voiceover by actress Melanie Hyams narrates episodes from the book as McQueen’s camera lingers the real locations where they took place. There are myriad accounts of random violence, summary arrests, suicides, acts of betrayal and collaboration, and invitably, transportation to the dreaded Westerbork transit camp, from which Jews were taken to the death camps. The familiar names of Auschwitz, Sobibor, Dachau, Theresienstadt and other death camps serve as the most chilling kind of punctuation to the narration.

But even with its cramp-preventing intermission, Occupied City’s epic runtime doesn’t deliver the same accretion of emotional power that makes, say, Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour Holocaust doc, Shoah, so great. Instead, it begins to open itself up to monotony and worse, glibness. McQueen presumably doesn’t intend to parallel the Covid lockdowns with Nazis curfews, so much as chart the anti-lockdown protestors who did, yet those links are nonetheless made in the juxtaposition of visuals and voiceover.

The epic runtime doesn’t deliver the same accretion of emotional power that makes the nine-hour Holocaust doc, Shoah, so great

But there’s many other fascinating insights on offer, as when Hyams’s narration outlines the formal rules given to all those who went into hiding during the war – Dutch men who wanted to avoid being sent to undertake forced labour in Germany, as well as Jews. They include a strict requirement that those in hiding don’t spend unnecessary time in the company of their host family: to make their excuses and leave the living room. It’s clearly born of practical and psychological necessity, but it still feels stark and oddly cruel; a shadow existence in earshot of the happy hubbub of family life. As the camera noses around one those elegant but claustrophobic townhouses in the present day, Occupied City invites you to wonder how it was even possible. In this haunting moment the too-often-abstract premise of McQueen’s doc hits hard.

In US theaters now and UK cinemas Feb 9.

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Cast and crew

  • Director:Steve McQueen
  • Screenwriter:Bianca Stigter
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