In his new documentary Occupied City, the acclaimed director Steve McQueen brings Amsterdam’s Nazi-era history out of the shadows – and connects the past with the present.
Oscar-winning British filmmaker Steve McQueen’s mammoth documentary Occupied City arrives in US cinemas on Christmas Day, presenting a chilling chronicle of the systematic and brutal efforts to remove the Jewish population from Amsterdam during World War Two. It is a bold undertaking, four hours and 22 minutes long, and quite different from McQueen’s other celebrated features, including 2014 best picture winner 12 Years a Slave, for which he is probably best-known.
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McQueen tells the BBC his interest in the Nazi occupation comes from personal circumstances; he has a Dutch wife, historian and filmmaker Bianca Stigter, and for 25 years has been living in Amsterdam, where history feels ever-present. The Nazis invaded Amsterdam in May 1940, when the city’s Jewish population was almost 80,000. By the time the war was over, it’s estimated that around 80% of Amsterdam’s Jews had been deported and slaughtered at concentration camps.
I thought that I was living with ghosts, that there was another narrative going on other than my own. It was the evidence of things not seen – Steve McQueen
McQueen says he always felt there was something lurking in the shadows of the city that he wanted to uncover, which is what Occupied City attempts to do. “I think sometimes the things that you’re looking for are right under your nose,” he tells the BBC. “When I first started living in Amsterdam, I thought that I was living with ghosts, that there was another narrative going on other than my own. It was the evidence of things not seen.”
Stigter provided that evidence, laying the groundwork for the film in a comprehensive book, Atlas of an Occupied City: Amsterdam 1940-1945, published in October 2019. “The book documents street by street, house by house, and sometimes even floor by floor the extremes of what happened during the Second World War, it was written as a kind of travel guide to the past of Amsterdam,” she tells the BBC.
In the documentary, McQueen uses research from the book and visits 130 Amsterdam addresses once inhabited by Jews. “In some ways, it is a sort of archaeological dig. We look at the locations which were occupied, where the food was delivered, [where] the people were hiding,” he says.
Viewers, party to this tragic tour, hear the names of Jewish city dwellers read out in a narration provided by actor Melanie Hyams, together with other personal details – and then we learn of their fate. More often than not, their final destination is a concentration camp, which Hyams names, uttering the word “Auschwitz” with a shocking finality. The cumulative effect of this constant cataloguing of Jewish lives destroyed is emotionally powerful.
Watching the documentary has been described as an immersive experience because it can feel as if you’re trapped inside 1940s Amsterdam as the Nazi menace roams the city streets. Hyams’s narration adds to the impending doom as she describes the escalating restrictions on Jews as they’re banned from parks, pools, shops, cafes and then from all public life. What is conveyed is a growing sense of dread that the extinction of Jewish life was not only imminent but also inevitable.
Sometimes the present erases the past, and sometimes it’s kind of like knocking into each other, sometimes it merges – Steve McQueen
In a bold move, McQueen illustrates his documentary with contemporary footage of life in the city shot during the Covid-19 era. We don’t see archival pictures from the 1940s; we don’t hear from survivors; there are no talking heads. McQueen is drawn to the dissonance of audiences hearing the text of the commentary detailing the past horrors of Nazi-era Amsterdam while seeing images of the Dutch city today. As Stigter explains: “You get a double portrait and it is for the viewer to see the connections or not see the connections between the two.”
As McQueen sees it, it is a narrative device designed to engage the mind. “Sometimes the present erases the past, and sometimes it’s kind of like knocking into each other, sometimes it merges. It could connect, it might not connect.” He is keen for his documentary to energise people, to instil in them a sense of responsibility for forestalling the kinds of horrors that defined the Nazi era. “In some ways, [it’s] a call to arms in being active in our everyday to change things,” he explains. “We have to be proactive, particularly in these times. I think the film is meant to stir the pot.”
‘Resilience and triumph’
Occupied City arrives in cinemas while Israel and Gaza face international pressure to broker a ceasefire, and amid numerous accounts of a rise in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. The director thinks these incidents and the recent election of Dutch populist leader Geert Wilders add resonance to his documentary. “That may have made the film more vital, more urgent, if anything,” he says.
McQueen is mindful of the sensitivities regarding the Israel-Gaza conflict, and makes clear his film is not an account of Jewish life, or death, to the exclusion of any other group, nor are its lessons confined to the story of Amsterdam during World War Two. “This is Jewish people as in us all – Jews, non-Jews – who are resilient. This is about resilience and triumph,” he says.
To that point, the documentary does end on a life-affirming note, perhaps illustrating the sustaining power of human connection in the face of adversity. “Love is supreme. I think that’s the biggest thing about this film, is a want and need to find love,” says McQueen, who believes his film is a testament to human strength. “We’re so resilient as human beings, and no matter what’s put in front of us, we sort of keep on going, and do we have a choice? Not really. Because we don’t know what’s around the corner. That’s hopefully the triumph of the film: Let us not forget, let us not forget.”
The documentary’s long running time could intimidate those contemplating seeing it. But McQueen maintains that once audiences start watching, they forget about its length. “Time doesn’t really come up in the conversation,” he says.
McQueen’s opus certainly has lengthy antecedents including the landmark 1985 nine-hour French Holocaust documentary Shoah from Claude Lanzmann, which relied on oral histories from survivors. But as Stitger points out, documentaries like Occupied City are having to develop new strategies to tell the story of the Holocaust. “There is no other way, because the eyewitness will not be with us for much longer. So to keep this story in our presence, so to speak, you will have to look for other ways to bring it to the fore,” she says.
As for the film’s critical response, Variety’s chief critic Owen Gleiberman describes it as “a trial to sit through” and “stultifying”. But Occupied City has won some significant endorsement, from Manohla Dargis of the New York Times, and garnered five stars from The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw.
In their view, and among its admirers, Occupied City is monumental cinema from one of Britain’s top directors: an artful and original excavation of the terrifying darkness that enveloped Amsterdam just over 80 years ago, brought into stark relief in the context of today.
Occupied City is released in the US on 25 December.
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