‘Occupied City’ review: Steve McQueen’s documentary feature debut is an ambitious, if overlong, account of occupied Amsterdam | Cannes
Steve McQueen is back with his first film since Small Axe, part of his extremely ambitious 5-film anthology series. His documentary feature debut Occupied City, which premiered in Cannes, is just as bold but in a different way; a thoroughly in-depth account of Amsterdam and the atrocities committed by the German occupying forces during their stay in the city during World War II.
Every city has its unique history and Amsterdam during the 1940s for non-history buffs is often overlooked in comparison to other war-torn cities in Europe during Nazi rule. Most know about the events that happened in major cities like Berlin, Paris, London and Vienna. Based on Bianca Stigter’s Dutch-language book ‘Atlas of an Occupied City (Amsterdam 1940-1945)’, McQueen guides us through the Dutch capital and the devastating effect that the Germans had on the city’s Jewish population.
The narration, editing and locations emphasise the horrors of Nazi occupation by contrasting the detailed voiceover with lockdown-set footage of Amsterdam’s restored streets. McQueen makes a point of the demolished buildings as the locations tell a very separate story now. There is an ever-present feeling of haunting as cinematographer Lennert Hillege captures the lockdown era streets of Amsterdam. The stillness of Hillege’s images are chilling as almost every location was once home to some of the most horrific acts in history. Occupied City is at its best when the camera sits and observes the smallest, humane actions by the citizens on screen. They capture a vast array of footage and even though some shots can feel distant from the script, McQueen manages to find some form of nuanced link between the two.
McQueen’s film is consistent in tone, never meandering from his artistic intent. The documentation is paired with Melanie Hyams engaging, yet extremely measured narration that comes across as line reading from a presentation. It’s not your typical historical documentary voice, but McQueen’s film is not an archetypal documentary feature, so the two make sense paired together. Each section of the story is written as a one paragraph summary of the victims, how and where they died and who killed them (if they weren’t sent to a concentration camp). Although there are no actors, the city of Amsterdam comes to life as the sole character through the people in the present while the ghosts of the past forces us to reflect on humanity as a whole.
Clocking in at over four hours, Occupied City will no doubt test the patience of some filmgoers in a theatrical environment and too often opts for a sternly academic, almost bullet point structure in its well-researched but exhaustive depth of information. There is probably a strong argument to be made for a presentation similar to McQueen’s own past video installation works, as a video catalogue or curated exhibition, or, as part of a television documentary miniseries like the 2021 Amazon series Uprising – which detailed intertwining stories of the New Cross Fire, the Brixton riots and the Black People’s Day of Action in 1981 – which McQueen helmed an episode of.
Occupied City ends with a sobering touch as the camera lies still on an empty tram as it travels through the fog-filled city, the empty train symbolises the emptiness left behind by all the murdered victims of an oppressive regime: those seats, now empty, could’ve been occupied. It then concludes with a bar mitzvah, showcasing the next generation of Jewish people from Amsterdam. It’s as if he is trying to say: there is a future out there, but it’s also important to look at the past to avoid the same heinous results. Most of Amsterdam’s Jewish population was wiped out by the end of World War II, the Netherlands was the worst affected country in Western Europe by Nazi oppression. Perhaps, with this documentary, more will become aware of the Dutch capital’s tragic history, it’s just a shame the film isn’t streamlined and inventive with its storytelling.
This review is from the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. Occupied City is a co-production of A24 and 20th Century Studios. A24 will release the film theatrically.