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Occupied City ★★★★★



Director: Steve McQueen

Cast: Melanie Hyams

Release Date: London Film Festival 2023

We all inhabit spaces with an immense sense of history. Where we work, eat, sleep, love, and live all were inhabited by other people at different times throughout the history of the human race, even if the buildings, layouts, or infrastructure have been entirely altered. World War II created the most significant tectonic shift in our modern history; the world we now live in directly results from how that war ended and the atrocities committed throughout it. The remnants of WWII live on in our politics, pop culture, and physical spaces. Occupied City brings together McQueen’s visual arts background and cinematic flair for piercing truths to close the gap between the city of Amsterdam in our present time, as well as during the pandemic in 2020, and Amsterdam as it was during the years in which Nazis occupied the city.

McQueen’s film, borderline an art installation, records Amsterdam’s spaces, streets, and land today, with a voice-over by Melanie Hyams that matter of factly states what the Nazis did to the Jewish community of the city from 1940-1945 and how the people of Amsterdam lived, both in subjugation and revolt. The connection is geographical; we see the modern-day address and hear what happened at that exact address 80 years ago. It’s an experimental work that justifies its runtime in its dedication to a holistic view of how we live within our history and how our history lives within us. We are creatures of habit and animals of survival. Occupied City reflects our species’ capacity for horror and resistance and how both are repeatable, entrenched aspects of ourselves and our spaces.

Occupied City is a film about rhythm, cadence, and existence. While many have struggled with the immense runtime, I found it rapturous. The film never deviates from its structure of presenting a modern-day address, landmark, or square in conjunction with Hyams’ voice-over, which gives McQueen the freedom to exemplify how humanity responds to captivity, with a lot of the early footage about the COVID-19 protests in Amsterdam. McQueen sidesteps comparing the Nazi’s occupation to the government’s lockdown by merely representing the people of Amsterdam to consistently oppose limits on their freedoms by a government that takes advantage of current global situations. Instead, he creates a stark juxtaposition between the horror of Nazi occupation within the voice-over and the images of
tear-gassed citizens believing they have been put under the same duress as a near century prior. Whether in times of tyranny or government-imposed safety, we have an immense capacity to be resilient. The people of Amsterdam and its spaces still carry the historical trauma of the occupation, and McQueen reflects it painstakingly.

Beyond the depiction of the pandemic, Occupied City is about the mundanity of a city coming back to life while we hear a city falling into ruin. To see images of children sledging down the Museumplein hill and to hear about the execution of Jewish families on the same plain of grass is debilitating. McQueen is aware of the power he is producing and goes further to have sound bridges and match cuts that make past and present indiscernible; to hear about the shooting of a family that was snitched on by neighbours, to visually cut to a jackhammer in a construction sight, chipping away at the rock, of the land. Within a four-and-a-half-hour runtime, the film is replete with this kind of magic and devastation. While some may find it repetitive, I was staggered by McQueen’s dedication and unwavering passion to show human history in its many facets. Nothing has been left on the cutting room floor, but why
should it? You cannot edit out human history.

Throughout Occupied City, Hyams will state which buildings were demolished between the occupation and what lives in that space today by simply saying “demolished”. What starts as an effective means of showing the cycles of death and rebirth becomes a shattering emotional lynchpin; what is gone is lost. The connection between this single word and images of murals, remembrance sites, and synagogues reflects the scale of humanity that was abandoned during the occupation, as well as the love that cascades through the modern day, the city and its people rejecting that very notion of demolished; spaces can be eradicated, but not our spirit, especially about the city’s youth and Jewish population. In one of the year’s most spectacular sequences, McQueen subverts practically every visual staple of filmmaking to create a whirlwind of disorientation; the camera breaks the 180-degree rule to go 360 degrees in a simultaneous horizontal and vertical rotation from the point of view of a city tram in the middle of the night, coasting empty streets. It is the only sequence in the film without voice-over. As a result, it becomes a visual representation of what McQueen is so brilliantly capturing here: a city, a space that embodies, ingratiates, and stores the history of humanity that coarse through it.

I want to end my thoughts on McQueen’s unrelenting audiovisual experience by reflecting on my experience with Amsterdam. I grew up partially in Amsterdam, living out my formative teenage years in the city, so the vast majority of what is on screen here was instantly recognizable. To see spaces I had lived in, loved in, and changed in, in conjunction with a specific geographical horrific history that I was unaware of, was deeply chilling yet equally enlightening. I, too, have been a part of this city, this space, where countless were persecuted and murdered, but I also was symbiotic with the city as everyone is here. Ultimately, this is what Occupied City leaves you with an understanding, appreciation, and adoration for your own inhabited spaces, making you take in the full breadth of the human history around you and a part of you, around me and a part of me. McQueen has fashioned one of film’s most important, daring, and consequential documentaries in Occupied City.

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