‘Occupied City’ Review: Amsterdam Plays Itself in Steve McQueen’s Rich but Stultifying Four-Hour Documentary

A four-and-a-half-hour World War II documentary that doesn’t include a single frame of archival footage or talking head testimony, Steve McQueen’s provocative but emotionally stultifying “Occupied City” refracts the fading memory of Nazi-occupied Amsterdam through the prism of the city’s more recent COVID lockdown — a rare pause in the flow of time, and one that McQueen eagerly seized upon as a chance to measure its powers of erosion. 

The film’s conceit is as simple as it is almost immediately numbing: Each of its 130 fragments is dedicated to a different address throughout the city, the past and present of these sites fractured across two parallel timelines that are offered to us all at once. While our ears listen to monotone narrator Melanie Hyams list off the war crimes that took place at a particular location in the early 1940s, our eyes watch similarly clinical — if far more benign — 35mm footage of the same address as it existed during the early 2020s, when the people of Berlin were forced to abide by the first city-wide curfew since World War II. 

Amsterdam wasn’t bombed as often as other European cities, and that lack of erasure makes it a uniquely lucid setting for a film so compelled by how the present lives alongside its memory of the past. The darkest chapter of Amsterdam’s history wasn’t erased or razed to the ground, it was simply refurbished (while Hyams’ voiceover notes that several of the film’s locations have been demolished since World War II, it’s unclear if those haunted lots were targeted for exorcisms). Blissfully oblivious children play in the same park where Himmler once inspected Nazi soldiers. Girls attend high school in a building that was once home to Hitler’s secret police. Hopeful messages are graffitied across the pandemic-shuttered walls of the G-Star clothing store that now sits on the very spot where the first “No Jews” sign was hung after the German occupation began. 

These flashpoints stand out in an epic whose typical episode is simultaneously more specific and banal. The cold open, in which an old woman shuffles into her cellar for supplies while Hyams’ voice reads a list of the Jews who once hid down there, is positively action-packed compared to many of the snippets that follow. It gains further potency from being the first passage in a film whose relentless inventory of disembodied atrocities is designed to become white noise of the worst kind, as McQueen’s technique somewhat damningly suggests that we’re less inclined to forget history than we are to tune it out. To that end, half-listening to Hyams’ unfeeling narration as it repeats whatever awfulness once happened at this storefront or on that street corner emulates the split awareness of Amsterdam itself, a city whose past is still palpable enough to feel like a low whisper in your ear. 

At no point during the interminable running time of “Occupied City” does the whisper grow any louder than that. McQueen’s pointillistic approach invites our minds to wander freely between then and now, his film less interested in shuddering at the specifics of its awful facts than it is in probing our ever-evolving relationship to them, but the documentary’s monotonousness resists deeper engagement. For all of the fascinating questions it raises along the way, watching this thing in full ultimately feels less instigative than it would be to isolate any single one of its 100+ 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 template and the 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 snowballed into a wrenchingly vast catalog of the violence that visited almost every inch of the city. Like Alain Resnais before her, whose “Night and Fog” extrapolated the horrors of the Holocaust from the piles of shoes and hair that Auschwitz victims left behind, Stigter understood that the unfathomable is better conveyed through scale than narrative. Her own documentary, last year’s harrowing “Three Minutes: A Lengthening,” unpacked 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 of a shortening than anything else, as McQueen’s film omits several hundred of the addresses that were included in its source material), its patience-testing running time still promises a payoff that never comes. Its slow accumulation of details fails to create the kind of emotional undertow that might reward the decision to present this A24-funded project as a four-hour film instead of an installation piece that viewers could dip in and out of at their leisure. Striking as it is to consider the sheer immensity of the horrors that Amsterdam experienced during the occupation, even more striking is how quickly they soften into background noise. Instead of interrogating the present’s relationship with the past, “Occupied City” more frequently recreates the conditions of its natural obliviousness: The past is fixed, and the present is always moving further away from it. 

McQueen’s film speaks to that tension ad nauseam, as its nonlinear accounting of Nazi-occupied Amsterdam doubles as a strictly chronological document of the city’s pandemic years (starting with the announcement of the first lockdown, and ending sometime after the restrictions were lifted). And yet, seeing 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 rescue from the long sequences in which McQueen pairs footage of the city’s recent anti-lockdown protests with narration about the city’s anti-Nazi resistance. In a vacuum, conflating the two would seem to be in wildly bad faith. But in a film where a housebound kid gets to play with an Oculus Rift VR headset in the living room rather than hide from the Gestapo in the attic, that read doesn’t quite pan out. McQueen stops short of mocking those who likened the inconvenience of public safety measures to the horror of fascism, but he appears to be struck by the fact that Amsterdam, of all cities, would have so little perspective on what it actually means to be oppressed (the rising specter of actual fascism is kept in the background, lest this film risk sparking a palpable sense of urgency, but the threat doesn’t go unacknowledged).

Much, much later, McQueen’s camera lingers on a climate rally in the same park where the Nazis once gathered, as if to offer a more hopeful take on the idea that the future is always beckoning us forward, even when the past is struggling to make itself heard (as a speaker says at an event in honor of the African slaves who were abducted to the Netherlands: “Reconciliation around a shared past makes room for the future”). Too torpid to capture how time moves through a city, McQueen’s film is more successful at articulating how a city like Amsterdam moves through time. What does it choose to remember, and what does it allow itself to forget? Is architecture a vessel for memory, or a monument to its absence? If nothing else, “Occupied City” reflects a world that’s inundated with the raw facts of history like never before. And, both in spite of and because of its tedium, McQueen’s film recognizes that how we relate to those facts will determine the future we inherit from them. 

Grade: B-

“Occupied City” premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. A24 will release it later this year.

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