McQueen’s approach, in length and substance, is different from this year’s other Holocaust related films like “The Zone of Interest” or “Origin.” McQueen doesn’t aim to achieve an arresting horror or to explain one person’s grief. This urban interrogation is a frank interplay between survival and oblivion, selflessness and selfishness, continuity and demolition.
While those themes are closely linked to McQueen’s previous politically minded projects: “Hunger,” “Small Axe,” and “Uprising”—the bones of his latest project can be traced to his wife, filmmaker and author Bianca Stigter. Her film “Three Minutes: A Lengthening” elongates a short three-minute piece of footage of a Jewish-Polish town prior to Germany’s invasion into a robust 69-minute reclamation of their memory. The equally immersive “Occupied City,” running at 262 minutes, is an adaptation of Stigter’s book Atlas of an Occupied City, Amsterdam 1940-1945, whose narrated texts are written by Stigter as well. Their creative partnership is an intriguing wrinkle for a film dependent upon the doubling of histories, architectural functions, and identities.
Narrated by Melanie Hyams, the film is split into two feature-length halves, with a 15-minute intermission in between: The first half more closely compares the difficulty of the pandemic to the hardships of occupation, while the second section recalls the many forms of resistance carried out during the war (though, to be sure, both subjects do, from time to time, intermingle no matter the half).
Because of the dense, meditative nature of “Occupied City,” it makes little sense to offer any further outline. The stories shared, sometimes from viciously antisemitic journals written by key eyewitnesses and books written by survivors, are not necessarily in chronological order. There are also no talking heads or even a map for viewers not from Amsterdam to get a sense of how these sites geographically communicate. Instead, McQueen’s film is an unceasing stream of tragedies, achieving a cumulative power meant to mirror the sense of unending dread that must have hung over the city.
Though Hyams’ voice bears a methodical timbre, make no mistake, McQueen is clearly infuriated with Amsterdam’s response to COVID, particularly the selfish acts of the young. McQueen and editor Xander Nijsten contrasts stories of famine during “The Hungry Winter” with later images of teens dancing jubilantly in unmasked reverie. Whenever he makes these critiques, the filmmaker has the vital sense to know when to let the images speak for themselves. When Hyams shares details about the curfew instituted by Germany during the war, McQueen allows for her voice to fall away; with a precisely controlled track, the cinematographer Lennert Hillege’s lens drifts above the contemporary nighttime streets, tilting and turning over, gliding past sleepy storefronts and glowing street lights as composer Oliver Coates’ wheezing, melancholic score, punctuated by backwards pulses whose repetitions are akin to mournful sighs, soundtracks the city’s eerie emptiness.