Steve McQueen’s monumental film is a vast survey-meditation on the wartime history and psychogeography of his adopted city: Amsterdam, based on his wife Bianca Stigter’s Dutch-language book Atlas of an Occupied City, Amsterdam 1940-1945.
Melanie Hyams provides a calm and understated narration as the film chronicles daily life in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. It covers events such as the invasion in 1940, the rise of the NSB (Dutch Nazi party), the harsher suppression and deportation of Jewish people to death camps, and the “hunger winter” of 1944 to 1945 when resources were scarce and the Nazis reacted with panic and fanaticism as the allies approached.
McQueen effectively displays the maps and figure legends from the book on screen, capturing the modern-day indoor and outdoor scenes of streets, canals, squares, buildings, and jetties where the barbarity of the past occurred. However, these scenes are shown as they exist today, with 21st-century individuals going about their daily lives. Hyams’ narration calmly summarizes what took place at each location, sometimes noting that the original structures have since been demolished. For example, a prison yard where Jews were once forced to chant degrading phrases now stands as an open space with the Hard Rock Cafe overlooking it. The former headquarters of the secret police has been replaced by a school.
The duration of Occupied City is approximately four hours, including an intermission. It creates a visual experience similar to a large-scale film or tapestry, or even an installation. However, it also resembles an old-fashioned “city symphony” film and may have been influenced by Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. The film raises difficult questions about our perception of the gap between the past and present. When we think about the Nazi regime in Amsterdam, what comes to mind? Perhaps flickering black-and-white newsreels, vaguely recognizable landmarks in shades of grey, images of swastikas – a distant portrayal of history, preserved in the past. However, McQueen presents us with the modern world, in high definition 4K resolution, and we come to realize that for those living through 1940, the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam was just as real and vivid as what we see before us: in living color, in the present, with contemporary hairstyles and fashion.
There are instances where the past and present do not align. For example, a place once associated with fear and horror may now be a site of joy and innocent activities such as ice-skating. Other times, there may be events to remember the past, like laying wreaths. In some cases, there may even be parallels between the past and present, such as a bandstand once used by Nazi occupiers now being used as a stage for performances. Additionally, there are also serious moments where history and politics intersect, such as official apologies for colonialism and slavery, or large demonstrations for causes like climate change and seeking justice for a slain journalist. These occurrences demonstrate that the distinction between old and new is not always clear-cut, and the relationship between the past and present is more fluid than we may initially perceive.
From time to time, there is a strange sensation. Some of McQueen’s scenes were filmed during the time of the Covid lockdown and the contrast between this and the oppression of the Nazis brings us, unintentionally, perhaps a bit too close to the realm of GB News. Viewers may be surprised at the lack of focus on Anne Frank: it is possible that McQueen wanted to steer us away from well-known debates, and certainly to move away from the common tourist cliches of coffee shops and brothel windows. However, there is another chilling connection to history in the way in which sexual activities between the occupiers and occupied were handled – sometimes monitored, sometimes accepted, and sometimes punished.
Occupied City effectively builds upon its emotional impact throughout its duration, resulting in a mysterious and poignant experience.