Cannes 2023 review: 'Occupied City' - a haunting geographical exploration of collective memory

Occupied City by Steve McQueen
Occupied City by Steve McQueen   -  Copyright  A24
By David Mouriquand

One epically long documentary from the director of 'Shame' and '12 Years A Slave' caught our eye on the Croisette this year. It’s a long one though...

When you’re about to sit through a documentary about the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam, what do you expect to watch?

Most likely, you’re picturing a wealth of archive footage, images of swastika flags, talking head interviews and dramatic testimonies filmed close-up.

British director Steve McQueen (Shame, 12 Years A Slave) has chosen a different, fresher perspective. He shows us the modern world as Amsterdam deals with the Covid lockdown (“something we never expected in peacetime”), while a voiceover narration relates short but detailed stories of the atrocities that befell the Dutch capital and its inhabitants during World War II. Essentially, this meticulously researched chronicle lets the audible past collide with the visual present in a truly memorable way.

Not that Occupied City is an easy film to recommend. It’s undeniably overindulgent at times and represents a commitment on the audience’s behalf, as the current cut clocks in at 4 hours and 28 minutes (with a recommended intermission of 15 minutes, should your bladder curse your bloodshot Cannes-going eyes).

Adapted from his wife Bianca Stigter’s Dutch-language book ‘Atlas of an Occupied City, Amsterdam 1940-1945’, McQueen’s exhaustive documentary opus spans the 1940 invasion, the deportation of Jewish populations to death camps and how the NSB, the Dutch Nazi party, collaborated in the Final Solution, as well as the “hunger winter” of 1944, when fuel and food became an elusive and expensive commodity. It’s a sprawling and repetitive chronicle that feels like an art installation in its current form. However, while it could work as a four-part miniseries, the effect of watching it in one go remains uniquely haunting.

The camera roves over buildings, sites and spaces in the present, filming frequently beautiful vignettes as we hear of the horrors of the occupation. Some of the stories are about how the Nazis melted down church bells for artillery or subjected two sisters to an absurd test in which the SS determined whether the naked siblings had “Jewish legs”. Others relate how so many Jews chose suicide by drowning or asphyxiation rather than die in camps, and how the resistance attacked a Civil Registry to destroy identity records, with minimal success. Most of them introduce us to an inhabitant of the city who was either executed or transferred to a death camp, with their full name, address, occupation and precise date of death – an auditory stolpersteine, if you will.

It can start to feel a little monotonous after a while, but there’s a certain savvy in this repetition, one which indirectly addresses how we have become numb to these stories and profiles over time, through the mythologizing of the Holocaust and forgetting that behind history book numbers are names. And in creating this dissonance between what the spectator sees and hears, McQueen establishes a spatial navigation which is less topography of trauma and more a geographical exploration of collective memory.

The initial disconnection reveals that the visuals are often tethered to the texts being read by British actress Melanie Hyams – whose solemn tone and Dutch pronunciation are spot-on. These echoes highlight the passing of time; the people in the modern world evolve in geographical spaces that are haunted by ghosts, whether they acknowledge it on a daily basis or not.

The connections are never explained but they exist. They’re not there to hector or compare the pandemic protocols to what the Nazis did, much like a demented far-right anchor would peddle. Rather, they are there to remind us how buildings, cultures and people can be “demolished” (a repeated word throughout Occupied City which serves as a full stop to certain segments) only for a resurrection to take place. This is both a hopeful visual and a warning; for better and for worse, we are currently creating history. In this sense, McQueen’s documentary doesn’t just relate the past to the present-day to ensure we never forget, but also enriches our perspective to a specific five years in history to offer a question: What ghosts will we leave behind for future generations to be haunted by?

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