Saturday, May 18, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Occupied City’ is an Illuminating History Lesson

Director: Steve McQueen
Writer: Bianca Stigter
Star: Melanie Hyams

Synopsis: 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.

A year before his upcoming World War II film Blitz, Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen presents his four-plus hour documentary about life in Nazi-occupied Netherlands. However, it is not made up of archive footage, photos, or testimony from those who survived and resisted. Instead, McQueen presents it as a modern travelogue of all the key places where they were, whether the buildings remain standing or not. It’s a unique approach to telling the story, relying on his camera to capture its current occupants during their daily life in modern-day Amsterdam. Moreover, McQueen collaborates with his partner, Bianca Stiger, who wrote the illustrated book, “Atlas Of An Occupied City (Amsterdam 1940-1945),” which the film is based on.

Juxtaposed with this are the recent events in the city in 2020 and 2021 with the COVID lockdown and protests taking place opposing it, as well as other local stories such as the murder of a journalist. They happen in the same places where Nazi officers and citizens walked through during a more harsh period eight years ago. Also, Amsterdam’s multicultural background with immigrants from Africa and the Middle East are also seen, a total contrast to what the Nazis believed in their view of Aryan supremacy. They now live on the streets where the Nazis sought to clear out unwanted citizens, namely Jews, as well as Romani people and those who dare fight back.

A narrator (Melanie Hyams) tells the stories of what happened in these buildings, standing or demolished, but it isn’t engaging and some may understandably quit after ninety minutes. Four hours is a major challenge for anyone to watch when it consists of modern-day images and simple narration with no drama to it. Shoah (all 9 hours of it) has more drama because of its testimony from those who were still alive in the 1970s and 80s, but McQueen was probably not considering making it dramatic. It is meant to be anecdotal and points out that these places, if walls could talk, have a major story to say about this terrible era. 

The horror outside of concentration camps can feel even harsher than what’s in it, which is why it feels so timely for A24 to release both Occupied City and Johnathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, set outside Auschwitz. There is no need to see any images of killing. Just being told how the Nazis ran their business with ruthless cops and informants is horrible enough. The only Nazi story associated with the Netherlands people know is Anne Frank. Amsterdam, and other major cities occupied by the Nazis, were also badly affected by the ruthlessness of Germany’s killing machine. It is mentioned in the documentary about the Hunger Famine in late 1944-early 1945 when the citizens, realizing they were about to be liberated, saw officials cut off food supplies to starve the population. Also, when any Nazi officer was killed, people would be randomly picked out and shot in front of a public forced to watch their execution. 

The monotone feel of going place to place will be a turnoff to a lot of viewers, but those who are highly interested in World War II history may find themselves intrigued to watch all of it. There is an intermission after 2 hours, which gives us breathing space in taking in what has been seen and heard. Probably, it would have been better to not go through every place mentioned (his first version, going block-by-block, is 36 hours) and go to a straightforward 2 hour documentary on the most important places, but McQueen didn’t make this for the general public. It’s for those who are very interested in these details where history stands among us as life goes on normally. In the end, Occupied City does come full circle to refer to the fact that it was the Jewish population who was targeted, that memorials for them still stand, and that Jewish life remains active in Amsterdam regardless of the Nazi attempt to obliterate it from the world.

Grade: B+

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