‘Occupied City’ Review: Mapping the Holocaust, Street by Street

Early in Steve McQueen’s extraordinary documentary “Occupied City,” the film cuts to the interior of the elegant main hall in Amsterdam’s grand Royal Concertgebouw. In World War II, the Nazi-German occupiers held events in the hall, but at some point in 1942 the names of the Jewish composers adorning it were covered. Concerts continued, but without Jewish composers, conductors, orchestra musicians, concertgoers and even names on walls.

Not long after this section ends, “Occupied City” shifts to a new location, a nondescript, boarded-up storefront. This, the narrator explains, was the site of a cafe that, in 1940, was among the first in the city to ban Jews. Soon after, the movie cuts to another location and then to another and another. And so it goes in this intense, absorbing and epically scaled chronicle — it runs close to four and a half hours, including a 15-minute intermission — that charts the fate of Amsterdam’s Jews during the Nazi occupation, street by street, address by address.

In total, the film surveys a staggering 130 addresses, a mapping that McQueen has realized, somewhat surprisingly, without the use of archival imagery. Instead, the director (whose earlier films include “12 Years a Slave”) explores the city’s past exclusively through images of quotidian Amsterdam life today — in and outside homes, in squares, on trams — that he shot over several years beginning in 2019. These 35-millimeter visuals are, in turn, accompanied by sounds that include voices, birdsong and so on recorded during the filming; fragments of music (some composed by Oliver Coates); and the narration (delivered in the English-language version with dry equanimity by Melanie Hyams, a British voice actor).

McQueen’s decision to only use images of contemporary Amsterdam in the film is as effective as it is conceptually bold, though it takes time to fully grasp what he’s doing and why. Without ceremony, textual explanation or a flourish of introductory music, he drops you into the city’s gentle and clamorous bustle right from the get go, and there you remain even as the film hopscotches across Amsterdam, covering miles and years. The movie opens, for instance, with a daytime shot of a warmly lit hallway in what looks like an apartment, with a door opened onto a garden. It’s quiet save for the homey sounds of rustling, the metallic tinkling of what seems like silverware and some faintly babbling voices, perhaps from a radio or TV.

An unidentified woman enters, and the narration — as it does throughout — begins with a recitation of an address, which grounds you. This was once the office of a printer-publisher who, with his wife and two sisters, died by suicide on May 15, 1940, the day the Netherlands capitulated to Germany. As the woman onscreen opens a trapdoor, the narrator continues, recounting that while many Jews hoped to escape to England, “most could not find a boat willing to take them.” The dead man’s brother did escape, and he transferred the business to an employee, who helped Jews hide in the office. One hid for days “on top of the elevator.”

McQueen continues this approach for the remainder of the film, though with striking variations that create linkages, by turns obvious and oblique. In one sunny segment, a cozy spell of pleasure and play becomes a ghost story as you watch people skating on a frozen canal outside a building where a woman sheltered Jewish residents and resistance fighters. Elsewhere, though, McQueen folds in images without commentary, notably in scenes of people protesting against pandemic lockdowns, met by police with water cannons. These images raise the specter of state violence even as the film — with its relentless, harrowing narration — puts the protesters and their freedoms into historical context.

As “Occupied City” continues to juxtapose the city’s history with its present — with chronicles of varying length that chart Jewish struggle, resistance, death and survival — the film builds tremendous force. A pilot who shot down German planes before the Netherlands capitulated lived at one address; a 10-month-old baby was taken from another address to a police station; the following year, the baby was murdered at Auschwitz. Amsterdam, McQueen repeatedly reminds you, is occupied by both the living and the dead, an obvious point that takes on specific, deeply profound resonance as the film unfolds. Most of Netherland’s Jewish population, as the narrator reminds you, died in the Holocaust.

Among these, alas and of course, was Anne Frank, who’s mentioned a few times in “Occupied City.” It’s notable, I think, that McQueen doesn’t include Prinsengracht 263, the building where her father’s employees kept the business running while she, her family and four others hid in the annex until they were betrayed and eventually deported to Auschwitz. The building is now a tourist attraction, which might be one reason that McQueen avoids it. I imagine that he also wanted to distance the film from the popular, commercially palatable conception of Frank, the one that seizes on her diary’s most famous line — “in spite of everything I still believe people are really good at heart” — and can attenuate the barbarism of her murder.

McQueen’s film is “informed,” as the credits put it, by Bianca Stigter’s huge 2019 book “Atlas of an Occupied City (Amsterdam 1940-1945),” which she described in an interview with the BBC as “a kind of travel guide to the past of Amsterdam.” (Stigter, who’s Dutch, and McQueen, who’s British, are married and live in the Netherlands.) She wrote and helped produce “Occupied City,” and she also directed “A Lengthening: Three Minutes” (2022), a feature-length documentary about a segment of a home movie that an American tourist, David Kurtz, shot in 1938 of a Jewish community in a Polish village. Using only images from this fragment, Stigter movingly reclaims a lost world, face by face, second by second.

Time is stretched differently in “Occupied City” and passes far more quickly than you might imagine, despite the running time. Some of this has to do with the fluidity of McQueen’s filmmaking and how the disparate parts build power cumulatively. Much of this, though, has to do with how McQueen approaches the past. It’s instructive, for one, that he hasn’t shaped the narration chronologically. Instead, as the film shifts from address to address, and as the seasons and people pass by onscreen, the narration skips from 1940 to 1944 and back again, pausing in moments before and after the war. For McQueen, history isn’t a neat little package that can be experienced at a safe remove and then forgotten. Here, history is in every wintry park and sunlit room because it is insistently present and very much alive.

Occupied City
Rated PG-13. Running time: 4 hours 22 minutes. In theaters.

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