Over the past 15 years, Steve McQueen has become one of my favorite filmmakers. He’s made only a handful of features, but in almost every case he takes a subject of extraordinary magnitude (the 1971 IRA prison hunger strike in “Hunger,” the complex horrors of slavery in “12 Years a Slave,” the collision of gritty city politics and feminine revolt in “Widows,” the epochal crackdown on West Indian immigrants in London in “Mangrove”) and uses it to box open your heart and mind. And he does it all with a storytelling vibrance that’s at once heady and populist. So when it was announced that McQueen would be directing his first documentary feature, and that it would tackle the subject of the Holocaust, dealing with the victims of the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam (the city where McQueen now lives), my anticipation took the form of thinking: How, with a director of McQueen’s skill and imagination and gravity, could this be less than fascinating?
But “Occupied City,” it’s my sad duty to report, is a good deal less than fascinating. I’ll be blunt: The film is a trial to sit through, and you feel that from almost the opening moments. McQueen based the movie on “Atlas of an Occupied City: Amsterdam 1940-1945,” a meticulously researched chronicle of life during World War II in Amsterdam that was compiled by his wife, the Dutch writer, historian, and filmmaker Bianca Stigter. The documentary is four hours long, and it consists almost entirely of dry descriptive passages, each one about a paragraph long, read by a narrator, in which we listen to the compressed story of one victim, or several related victims, of the Nazi regime.
Each thumbnail portrait takes a minute or so to read, and each one begins with the dateline recitation of the address in Amsterdam where the person’s story took place. We then hear a brief description of who they were and what happened to them, a chronicle that ends, more often than not, with a description of their death in a concentration camp (though not a notably evocative description — the final line will be something along the lines of “He was murdered in Auschwitz in 1943”).
As each passage is being read, it’s accompanied by an unblinking shot of the same address in Amsterdam, filmed during the present day. McQueen, in theory, seems to be trying for a kind of meditation on the interface between past and present. He shoots Amsterdam from every angle, to the point that if you’ve never been there you may feel like you never need to go. We see townhouses along the canal, a swimming pool, an ice-cream parlor, a hospital, the red-light district, the stock exchange, a park, a church, and boarded-up storefronts of international brand outlets (Prada, Tesla), since the film was shot during the pandemic. McQueen’s stationary camera, with the images in vivid color, lingers on the existential present-ness of each locale, encouraging us to recall that something horrific once took place at that very place, and so maybe it could again.
“Occupied City” is mostly a straight-up anecdotal history, a deadpan recitation of cruelty, tragedy, and the insidious horror of collaboration (there was a Dutch Nazi Party). Jews were basically banned from the city in 1941, forced to live in a ghetto. The movie reclaims their stories. Yet “Occupied City” doesn’t really qualify as an oral history, even though we’re hearing the anecdotes read aloud. It’s more like listening to 150 encyclopedia entries in a row. Since the subjects aren’t greatly individualized, the film’s just-the-facts approach becomes naggingly repetitive, almost ritualized. After a while we stop registering the differences in the stories. They start to sound more or less the same, as if that was the whole point.
At moments, McQueen appears to be aiming for an almost Godardian effect of dislocation. But Godard wasn’t shy about grabbing hold of the Holocaust as a subject and shaking it; he could shake up your perceptions. The closest McQueen comes to doing that arrives in the rather baffling sequences in which he films Amsterdam citizens protesting against the Covid lockdown, and we think: Is he drawing some sort of parallel between the pandemic protocols and what the Nazis did? That’s certainly what he seems to be doing. Or is he making the comparison only to dismiss it?
The fact that we even have to ask is, frankly, a little bizarre. So is McQueen’s use of David Bowie’s “Golden Years” over a vaccine montage of older people getting the jab. (No pun intended, but that’s the kind of needle drop I’d expect from Chris Columbus, not Steve McQueen.) And if McQueen isn’t reaching for glib and almost borderline reactionary parallels, then what does the pandemic have to do with the Holocaust anyway?
Our culture often tends to mythologize the Holocaust. Even in a documentary as intimate and grounded as “Shoah,” which is a great oral history (the stories told in that movie make the people they’re about come alive for the audience), the sweeping images of train tracks and abandoned death camps add up to a mesmeric portrait of evil looming up from the past over the present. But in “Occupied City,” juxtaposing an aridly remote chronicle of life during World War II with detached images of the present is the only strategy McQueen has up his sleeve.
You can feel an echo of McQueen’s art installations — the ones he made before he established himself as a filmmaker — in the self-conscious cataclysm-as-wallpaper aesthetic of “Occupied City.” If you were wandering through a museum exhibit about the Holocaust and walked into a darkened room where this movie was playing on a loop, you might submerge yourself in it for five or 10 minutes, and you might experience its conceptual statement about the Nazi era — real citizens torn from real addresses that still exist, as if none of that had ever happened — as a wake-up call.
But “Occupied City” subjects you to the same thing over and over and over again, and it doesn’t take long for the film to become stultifying. The narrator, Melanie Hyams, reads it all in the same precise, cultivatedly “objective” tones, which plays as a kind of indifference. After a while you start to despair of her posh English accent; is this really the voice the material called for? I’m afraid that at four hours, “Occupied City” is enough to make the audience feel trapped. This is the banality of evil at its most airless and didactic, and it makes you wonder: Who did McQueen think he was making this movie for? If it plays in theaters, it seems all but designed to provoke walk-outs. Perhaps its rightful home is streaming, but that’s just a way of saying that in its stolid and forbidding way, it seems destined to be tossed, like everything else, into the vast sea of content.
“Shoah” was nine-and-a-half hours long, and “The Sorrow and the Pity,” the great French Holocaust documentary that Woody Allen made (reverent) sport of in “Annie Hall,” was four hours, yet both those films, in different ways, are eminently accessible and dramatic experiences. They were films that led the audience to revelation, and in doing so met us more than halfway. Of course, the whole idea of juxtaposing past and present settings was done — definitively — in Alain Resnais’s “Night and Fog” (1956), the most searing and indelible Holocaust documentary ever made (and it’s only 33 minutes long). Last year’s “From Where They Stood,” about photographs taken within the concentration camps by inmates, employed a variation on that same technique and created its own haunting footnote to a history that is still evolving. But in “Occupied City,” you don’t feel history evolving. You feel it withering, becoming smaller and more abstract, almost bureaucratic in its detachment, until it feels as if the life had been drained out of it.