THE STORY – The past collides with the present in this excavation of the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam: a journey from World War II to recent years of pandemic and protest and a provocative, life-affirming reflection on memory, time and what’s to come.
THE CAST – Melanie Hyams
THE TEAM – Steve McQueen (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 262 Minutes
Acutely aware of how the past informs the present (see the “Small Axe” anthology series), Oscar-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen (“12 Years A Slave“) chose to make a documentary during the pandemic based on his wife Bianca Stigter’s book about the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam from 1940-1945. With no interviews or archival footage, the epic documentary meticulously captures the modern-day city of Amsterdam from every conceivable angle, including its people, businesses, art, music, museums, parks, hospitals, schools, and more. It functions as a love letter to the city but with a warning of caution of what may be to come again should the far-right extremist rise of fascism return to the height of what it once was during WWII.
At 262 minutes long, McQueen’s extensive rumination on the past and its parallels to the present is far too long. Without any interviews, archival footage, or much excitement to be found, it’s easy to see how many would consider this a tedious slog of a history lesson. During its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, McQueen announced there would be an intermission that came just about a little over halfway through the movie. Still, by then, the point of the film was already firmly established. For as we see gorgeously composed images of life in Amsterdam today, it’s shown alongside the primarily monotone voiceover of Melanie Hyams as she tells the audience a horrific story either about the location itself we are seeing or about the long-since dead Jewish person or persons who lived or worked there and were harassed, imprisoned and/or killed by the Nazis. These recounts are consistently short and to the point but by the time the film gets to the twentieth or so factual story, one cannot help but wonder if such a vast telling was required. It seems as if nothing was cut in the editing room, and McQueen decided to include every minute of footage he shot and found story about a Jewish resident living on the described street or building in the city during the occupation.
The sporadic but mournful score by Oliver Coates adds a layer of devastation to the footage, allowing the gravity of the past to sneak up on you unexpectedly, especially given the film’s repetitious structure. McQueen’s camerawork remains exquisite as he and cinematographer Lennert Hillege capture the streets of Amsterdam with an artistic vision that only highlights the city’s resilience and transformation from over 80 years ago. Nearly every time Hyams tells a story about the Jewish people pertaining to a specific location, she ends the passage by stating the word “demolished,” signifying the destruction and simultaneous rebirth of the area we are witnessing. As McQueen’s camera glides through the streets, sometimes filled with people, whether it’s for a rally for climate change or political protest, and sometimes completely empty due to the pandemic, the film’s measured pace and stillness allows the imagination to take over to envision the past without ever having to show it. The 4:3 aspect ratio practically demands the audience to hone in on the beautifully shot images on screen and draw these comparisons.
Unfortunately, displaying life as it was a few years ago also inevitably means showcasing how the citizens of Amsterdam reacted to the coronavirus and the vaccine when McQueen shot the film marking the first time the city has experienced a curfew since WWII. Because the film’s set rules tell audiences to connect the dots between the past and the present, how are we supposed to interpret the many scenes grappling with the pandemic and what could be insinuated from the past to today? Is McQueen explaining his feelings towards the pandemic and comparing it to the atrocities committed by the Nazis? It seems like a stretch coming from a filmmaker whose previous projects have advocated for social justice in times of injustice and has had many left-leaning attitudes and beliefs woven through them. “Occupied City’s” existence alone is a left-leaning statement cautioning us about the rise of the far right and how the world is possibly on the brink of another world war which will have just as terrible consequences as the many stories described here during WWII. McQueen has explained his intentions here, but had “Occupied City” been more concise in its presentation, it’s possible such interpretations could’ve been disregarded entirely.
As we watch kids climbing up a steep snowy hill while other kids slide in the opposite direction down the slippery ice, it’s just one of many shots and authentic moments which mesmerize due to McQueen’s innate filmmaking abilities. “Occupied City” may have an ambitious scope it wants to translate to today’s audience, and distributor A24 will have a tough decision regarding how they decide to release it to the world. Do you show this mammoth documentary in a single sitting in theaters (hopefully with an intermission at least), or do you sell it to a streamer and release it in two parts? Such questions shouldn’t have to be asked, and yet they lie at the heart of the problem of McQueen’s latest. A masterful and highly effective work of art is buried within the current version of “Occupied City,” which premiered at Cannes. But for what we have, it’s an uneven but sprawling and evocative reflection on a community and its history and a haunting meditation on whether or not we’re destined to repeat the past.