Steve McQueen (12 YEARS A SLAVE) returns to our screens with an epic and scrupulously well-made documentary that pairs contemporary Amsterdam locations with a narrator, Melanie Hyams, describing what happened there during the Nazi occupation and Holocaust. We see everything from famous tourist sites like the Riksmuseum or Concertgebouw to domestic interiors and seemingly ordinary suburban homes. And, shot as it was during the pandemic, we see deserted city streets during the curfew and vaccination centres. The documentary thus serves as a double documentary of the Holocaust but also Amsterdam during Covid. Sometime the pairing of visual and narration is jarring. Horrific anti-semitism and murder calmly narrated by Hyams over an everyday apartment. And sometimes the pairing is surprisingly resonant, such as an act of fascism narrated over footage of an antifa protest, or an anti-covid lockdown protest monitored by drones and riot police.
The film is based on McQueen's wife Bianca Stigter’s Atlas of an Occupied City, Amsterdam 1940-1945r and I did find myself wondering if a book was the better format for this story. The running time of this superb film is well over four hours, including an interval. I understand that for some reviewers this has led to an overwhelming and moving cumulative impact of image after image and story after story. And I also understand that in some respects the endurance of an epic Holocaust documentary is itself a homage. But for me, once I got to the second hour, I felt myself tire, and my mind start to wonder. I would far rather have watched this over sequential nights in parts, which is the way I typically watch and rewatch SHOAH.
OCCUPIED CITY has a running time of 246 minutes. It played Cannes, Telluride and London 2023. It opens in the Netherlands on November 24th.