‘Occupied City’ Review: Steve McQueen’s Cannes Documentary On Nazi Occupation Of Amsterdam Takes Its Place Among Great WW II-Themed Films

In cinematic form, how do you tell history without archive footage? Occupied City shows how it can be done, and to what effect.

Related Story

Cannes Kicks Off With Michael Douglas Honor, Catherine Deneuve Tribute To Ukraine & Johnny Depp’s ‘Jeanne Du Barry’

Steve McQueen’s audacious documentary, which premiered at Cannes today in the festival’s Special Screenings section, undertakes a portrait of Amsterdam during the Dutch city’s occupation by the Nazis from 1940-45. But it does so without making use of a single frame of film or stills from the era itself – no German tanks rumbling over the thoroughfares, no jackbooted troops on patrol, no black-and-white imagery of terrified civilians running for safety. 

The remarkably bold approach, instead, uses only scenes of Amsterdam today while a narrator (Melanie Hyams) recounts in almost clinical fashion what took place virtually door to door and street to street during the Nazi occupation. For instance, at the opulent Concertgebouw we learn the invaders took a shine to the concert hall but made sure to cover up engravings of Felix Mendelssohn and other composers of Jewish ancestry. Or that a building on another street housed a Jewish couple who died by suicide rather than face extermination, leaving behind a note that invited neighbors to take whatever possessions they wished.

Here, a group of prisoners was executed in the street in retaliation for the killing of a German soldier. There, a Dutch collaborator betrayed the location of a Jewish family in hiding, leading to their immediate deportation to the death camps. We see the spot where, before the war, Anne Frank used to go for ice cream. In the Vondelpark, people jog along leafy paths as we hear that under the occupation Jews were banned from sitting on park benches.

Occupied City unfolds not as a chronological narrative, but in anecdotal or episodic form. It gains a purchase on the psyche through the accumulated description of incidents from eight decades ago while Amsterdammers of today are seen going about their lives, seemingly unaware of what transpired under their feet.

'Occupied City' screenwriter Bianca Stigter

The Oscar-winning McQueen (12 Years a Slave), a U.K. native, has made Amsterdam his adopted home; he lives there with his wife Bianca Stigter, the author, journalist and filmmaker who hails from the city. In 2019 she published Atlas van een bezette stad: Amsterdam 1940-1945 (Atlas of an Occupied City: Amsterdam 1940-1945), a book that loosely inspired the documentary; she wrote the text for the documentary. McQueen has told Deadline that while his wife focused in her book, in a sense, on the dead, he trained his attention on the living. To that end, Occupied City shows many moments from Amsterdam’s very recent past – the far-right increasingly making its presence felt, and counterdemonstrations by supporters of democracy and liberal values. People clamoring against Covid restrictions; old people getting their vaccines (in one touch of humor, the elderly roll up their sleeves for injections while the soundtrack plays David Bowie’s “Golden Years”).

The viewer watches these contemporary scenes while the narration references something completely different – the catalogue of tragedies, denunciations, occasional acts of heroism from World War II. One finds oneself fighting against the temptation to follow the visuals at the expense of the auditory information or vice versa. This disconnect is by design — it’s a deliberate attempt to make us pause and think of the simultaneous streams coming into our minds. Some will find this disconcerting, but I think it’s meant to challenge us to think about how we’re processing the experience. And the truth is that in a more traditional presentation of historical material – like the endless sequence of History Channel documentaries about WWII – the visuals and narration remain in accord, but their familiarity lulls us into a faintly dream-like state that quickly evaporates once the show is over. Occupied City, I suspect, will stay with you.

The documentary, from A24 and New Regency, runs more than four hours, including an intermission. That will scare away some potential audiences (although it bears noting that Claude Lanzmann’s epic Shoah documentary runs more than twice that length). But the volume of anecdotes serves the important purpose of illustrating the scale of the brutal occupation. As the film points out, about 10 percent of Amsterdam’s pre-war population was Jewish. Three-quarters of them, or about 60,000 people, did not survive World War II.

Implicit in the film is an invitation to consider whether the stirrings of nationalism around the world – particularly white Christian nationalism – aren’t paving the way for the return of a Nazi-like nightmare. And it comes at a time when Europe is seeing its largest land battle since the Second World War, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Occupied City also suggests the limits of the liberation that followed Germany’s defeat in 1945. Celebrations back then in Amsterdam’s Dam Square signaled a joyous release from tyranny, and yet not a reexamination of the Netherlands’ colonial empire that predated the Nazi invasion. Liberation was for some, not necessarily for all.

We are entering a new era when few people with direct experience of the atrocities of WWII and the Holocaust remain alive. This era calls for a new kind of film about that time – a new way of preserving memory and cautioning us against a repetition of crimes against humanity driven by a racist ideology. Occupied City is that film, and it takes its place alongside essential documentaries on the genocidal impact of Nazism across Europe, from Lanzmann’s Shoah to Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorry and the Pity.

Title: Occupied City
Festival: Cannes (Special Screenings)
Director: Steve McQueen
Text By: Bianca Stigter
Narrator: Melanie Hyams
Running time: 262 min
Sales agent: A24

Must Read Stories

Addresses Hollywood Boycott Claim In Cannes; ‘Jeanne Du Barry’ Review

Disney Day: Kathleen Kennedy; ABC; Premiere Dates For ‘Only Murders’, ‘Loki’ & ‘Echo’; More

Latest Market Deals; Party List; Photo Galleries; Hirokazu Kore-Eda Talks ‘Monster’

‘Penguin’, Daytime Emmys, Other Shows Hit; Dual-Coast Picket Lines: The Latest

Read More About:

Source: Read Full Article