‘Occupied City’ review: Steve McQueen’s brilliant documentary

One of the many stories we hear in «Occupied City,» Steve McQueen’s quietly stunning new documentary, charts the fate of an Amsterdam art establishment during the German occupation. In 1941 the Hollandsche Schouwburg, or Dutch Theatre, was renamed the Joodse Schouwburg, or Jewish Theatre; only Jewish artists were allowed to perform there, and only for Jewish audiences. In 1942, the Nazis turned it into a deportation center and prison from which thousands of Dutch Jews were taken to the Westerbork transit camp and then to death in extermination centers including Auschwitz and Sobibor.

All this is explained in a calm and clear narration by the English actor Melanie Hyams, who here and elsewhere starts with one location and then branches off into a series of brief but richly detailed detours. He tells us about the average detention time in the theater, about the Jews who jumped from the balcony and died. But it also tells us about the daring escapes that took place and the Jewish resistance fighters who at one point tried to burn down the theater. Hyams patiently and purposefully describes how an institution built in the 19th century became a makeshift ghetto, a site of mass murder, a site of rebellion, and finally, under the auspices of the Jewish Historical Museum, a permanent memorial.

«The Occupied City» is also something of a memorial, like Amsterdam itself, an idea that McQueen and his main collaborator, Dutch-born writer and filmmaker Bianca Stigter («Three Minutes: Overtime») emphasize in every shot. Over the course of a densely packed, utterly thrilling 4½ hours (including a 15-minute intermission) we are taken on a visual tour of the city in the present day, taking us through streets, over bridges, through parks and into houses, restaurants, offices. and nightclubs. (McQueen and Stigter, who are married, live in Amsterdam.) The film is structured not chronologically or even thematically, but geographically; we are introduced to each of the 130 locations in the film with an exact address, followed by a verbal description of what is known to have happened to the Jews who may have once lived, worked or played there. He often notes that the building in question has been «demolished,» a word that reminds us of the terrible truths that lie beneath the foundations and facades of the modern metropolis.

People swim in a huge outdoor pool in Amsterdam.

Image from the documentary «Occupied City».


Crucially – and with a reticence that grows stronger as the film progresses – McQueen never shows us archival footage from the 1940s or any historical re-enactments. Instead, it depends entirely on Hyams’ narration to take us into the past, a formal choice that underscores how tenuous and even invisible our connection to that past can be. Perceiving these contexts requires careful attention, and «Occupied City,» beautifully shot (Lennert Hillege) and ingeniously edited (Xander Nijsten), is based on a striking dissonance between then and now and between sound and image. You want this film to wash over you, to bask in the beautiful everyday moments of smiling pedestrians, blissful revelry and laughing children running around. But you also want to put those scenes away and lean forward in your seat, the better to give the individual tragedies being told the time and attention they deserve.

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But the film doesn’t linger, and Hyams’ relentless narrative, derived from Stigter’s 2019 Atlas of an Occupied City (Amsterdam 1940-1945), moves with a nimbleness that conveys scale without sacrificing gravitas. The aesthetic tension that McQueen maintains here, far from tearing you out of the film, proves extremely productive. The contrasts can border on the surreal: It’s shocking to see what has become of a former Jewish ice cream shop, or to watch a bride and groom pose for photographs in a former hospital for Dutch soldiers. At one point, the camera lingers on an event that draws attention to the history of blacks from Aruba, Curacao, and Suriname, an instructive reminder that the Netherlands was both occupier and occupied.

Sometimes the links are more subtle intuitive. In a few simple shots of an outdoor cafe, the narrator describes the food shortage that ravaged Amsterdam during the so-called Hunger Winter of 1944, a tragedy to which she keeps returning. And then there are the newly filmed images of children playing in the classroom, which provide a devastating counterpoint to Hyams’ account of the schools where Jewish children were segregated during the occupation. The number of these classes steadily dwindled until the schools finally closed in 1943, the year the last Dutch Jews were deported and the Nazis triumphantly declared Amsterdam «Jew-free».

Uniformed police officers stand on a street in Amsterdam.

Image from the documentary «Occupied City».


If this all sounds dangerously abstract, the effect is exactly the opposite. The success of «Occupied City» is to give texture, definition and specificity to events too often neglected in movies, with their broad brushstrokes and cruel shortcuts. It is common to describe such events as unspeakable or unimaginable, a cliché that McQueen rejects here as forcefully as in his 2013 drama 12 Years a Slave. a sense that history has been unflinchingly and powerfully confronted. For those willing to look and listen, the worst can actually be spoken, imagined, and on some level understood.

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In «Occupied City,» McQueen reminds us that the Nazi death machine was an apparatus in which plodding bureaucratic banality collided with startlingly imaginative cruelty. You might not flinch after hearing about a series of mass executions for the umpteenth time, but the throwaway line will kick you in the gut: «The wives of the executed men could pick up their wedding rings the next day.» The film has a particularly keen ear for less-heralded tragedies: the boy who he was shot because he was caught outside two minutes after curfew; a runner who was arrested and deported because he forgot that Jews were not allowed in a particular park; desperate residents killed for cutting down trees to use for firewood during the long, cold and resource-depleted hungry winter.

But if «Occupied City» is an account of the barbarism of a country where some 75% of its Jewish population was murdered during the Holocaust, it is also, thrillingly, a chronicle of mass resistance. Street after nondescript-looking street testifies to the courage of those Dutch residents who risked their lives: the many men and women who hid Jews in boarding houses and secret rooms. Inevitably, the film touches on Anne Frank, though not as often as you might expect. It’s as if McQueen and Stigter didn’t want the Holocaust’s most iconic victim to overshadow the countless others who suffered in relative anonymity.

A family stands in a synagogue in Amsterdam.

A family stands in a synagogue in Amsterdam in a picture from the documentary «Occupied City».


If resistance is one of the film’s key themes, he’s willing to take that theme to sometimes provocative ends. McQueen began filming in 2019, and much of the footage was shot during the first outbreak of COVID-19, a context that makes for some uncomfortable comparisons. When I first watched “Occupied City,” shortly before its Cannes premiere last May, I initially wondered if McQueen was facilely comparing the Jewish resistance fighters of World War II and the group of unmasked protesters we see gathering in the early days of the pandemic. A haunting sequence of an eerily depopulated Amsterdam at night, accompanied by a brooding string score by Oliver Coates, couldn’t possibly compare Nazi-imposed curfews to COVID lockdown restrictions, could it?

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But long before the film was over, I decided it wasn’t, and not just because McQueen’s interest in the pandemic — he soon shows us the people of Amsterdam getting their first COVID vaccines — seems more observational than analytical. He is generally fascinated by images of people gathering in protest, whether it is a crowd gathered at an anti-fascist rally or a group of activists waving Palestinian flags in Dam Square, a place of enormous historical significance: Here, Hyams tells us, two days after the Nazis in 1945 surrendered, German soldiers fired into a crowd of Dutch cheerers celebrating what they thought was the end.

In these moments when the past leans against the present, what «Occupied City» leaves us with is the understanding that to gather in public for any reason is to practice a hard-fought and nearly destroyed social freedom. To do this, McQueen and Stigter didn’t just dig up some not-so-old history; they’ve also made a haunting, magisterial tribute to a city they clearly love.

«Occupied City»

(in English and Dutch with English subtitles)

Rating: PG-13, for thematic material, coarse language and sexual material, smoking and brief drug use

Progress: 4 hours, 30 minutes

Playback: Starts Friday at Landmark’s Nuart Theater, West Los Angeles

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