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Every film is a collection of moving images, but few are as moving as the sights that compose “Occupied City.” Filmed during the outset of the pandemic, when, like many cities around the globe, Amsterdam turned to facemasks, social distancing, and quarantines to stem the virus’ tide, director Steve McQueen recorded the difficult remnants and former sites from the Nazi occupation of the city during World War II. On its face, the director’s blending of the pandemic and the last world conflict is logical: After all, these are two seismic events that lead to incalculable loss. But McQueen opts for less of a parallel, and more of a juxtaposition between how the city’s past and present inhabitants reacted to their respective horrific circumstances. “Occupied City,” therefore, is a chilling survey of how history's repeating coil resides in unsuspecting places.
McQueen’s approach, in length and substance, is different from this year's other Holocaust related films like “The Zone of Interest” or “Origin.” McQueen doesn’t aim to achieve an arresting horror or to explain one person's grief. This urban interrogation is a frank interplay between survival and oblivion, selflessness and selfishness, continuity and demolition.
While those themes are closely linked to McQueen’s previous politically minded projects: “Hunger," “Small Axe," and “Uprising”—the bones of his latest project can be traced to his wife, filmmaker and author Bianca Stigter. Her film “Three Minutes: A Lengthening” elongates a short three-minute piece of footage of a Jewish-Polish town prior to Germany’s invasion into a robust 69-minute reclamation of their memory. The equally immersive “Occupied City,” running at 262 minutes, is an adaptation of Stigter’s book Atlas of an Occupied City, Amsterdam 1940-1945, whose narrated texts are written by Stigter as well. Their creative partnership is an intriguing wrinkle for a film dependent upon the doubling of histories, architectural functions, and identities.
Narrated by Melanie Hyams, the film is split into two feature-length halves, with a 15-minute intermission in between: The first half more closely compares the difficulty of the pandemic to the hardships of occupation, while the second section recalls the many forms of resistance carried out during the war (though, to be sure, both subjects do, from time to time, intermingle no matter the half).
Because of the dense, meditative nature of “Occupied City,” it makes little sense to offer any further outline. The stories shared, sometimes from viciously antisemitic journals written by key eyewitnesses and books written by survivors, are not necessarily in chronological order. There are also no talking heads or even a map for viewers not from Amsterdam to get a sense of how these sites geographically communicate. Instead, McQueen’s film is an unceasing stream of tragedies, achieving a cumulative power meant to mirror the sense of unending dread that must have hung over the city.
Though Hyams’ voice bears a methodical timbre, make no mistake, McQueen is clearly infuriated with Amsterdam’s response to COVID, particularly the selfish acts of the young. McQueen and editor Xander Nijsten contrasts stories of famine during “The Hungry Winter” with later images of teens dancing jubilantly in unmasked reverie. Whenever he makes these critiques, the filmmaker has the vital sense to know when to let the images speak for themselves. When Hyams shares details about the curfew instituted by Germany during the war, McQueen allows for her voice to fall away; with a precisely controlled track, the cinematographer Lennert Hillege’s lens drifts above the contemporary nighttime streets, tilting and turning over, gliding past sleepy storefronts and glowing street lights as composer Oliver Coates’ wheezing, melancholic score, punctuated by backwards pulses whose repetitions are akin to mournful sighs, soundtracks the city’s eerie emptiness.
Before long, the filmmaker takes aim at the local police force, who, without a hint of irony, use a drone to record the participants of an anti-Fascist rally. He also connects the present monarchy to the country’s imperialist past, its retention of the then named Dutch West Indies (located in the Caribbean) and the current colonies they still possess. That McQueen makes this visual analysis with images of the present King of the Netherlands, Willem-Alexander, laying a pebble during a ceremony at the National Holocaust Names Memorial, is one of the film’s many audacious statements: How can a colonialist leader openly mourn victims of a regime that possessed genocidal imperialist aims without a hint of shame?
“Occupied City” visits former homes, once owned by the resistance, now possessed by new inhabitants. It ventures through public spaces—squares and parks, docks and canals—where murder was either decided or carried out. It leaps from schools, to hospitals, train stations, and the former offices that formed the connective web of mass extermination. Tours through nightclubs, concert halls, and museums recall the Nazi’s censorship of art, from the erasure of Jewish painters and composers to the banning of dance and music, particularly songs containing “Negro elements.”
What is most enduring, however, are the stories of real resistance. How many Jewish people chose to wield their own destinies through suicide? How many Jewish people passed as gentiles to then save friends, relatives, and anyone else they could find? How many Dutch citizens hid close neighbors and complete strangers? At one point, Hyams shares the story of a Jewish man, who, having never flown a seaplane before, commandeered a German one covered with Swastikas, and transported his family to the safety of England.
While the word “demolished” is often uttered by Hyams to denote a building’s disappearance, becoming a debilitating blow to the listener, the word also reminds viewers of how easily the markers of history can disappear. The word "demolished" itself becomes a form of witnessing. Because despite those sites not wholly existing anymore, what has been seen cannot be unseen. And while that solace is only half the desire, the harrowing stories that McQueen’s “Occupied City” delivers to viewers, stories meticulously bound together by Stigter’s research, are the other half of the film's memorializing that will live on.
In limited release now.