There are certain places where the psychogeography is more prominent than others. Edinburgh, for instance, carries the imprints of its centuries of inhabitants in the various layers of its architecture, stacked like layers of sediment on each other. Berlin still has the invisible line of its relatively recent division running through it like a suture, a vivid scar still well within living memory. Amsterdam’s haunted streets are less obvious but just as thronging, as Steve McQueen demonstrates in his monolithic documentary on his adopted home city under Nazi occupation. Based on his wife Bianca Stigter‘s Atlas of an Occupied City, it’s a four-hour catalogue of wartime life through the ghosts of its residents. Its deluge of data is overwhelming by design, and studiously avoids the expected archive footage.
McQueen films the locations featured in Stigter’s book, with the lives of their residents detailed in a controlled, dispassionate voiceover by Melanie Hyams. The juxtaposition is immediately striking. The bustle of peacetime Amsterdam in the 2020s becomes eerie, a hauntological travelogue. Children play in a playground once occupied by the Dutch Nazi party, the NSB; activists march in streets previously pounded by jackboots; 21st century people live happily in town houses belonging long ago to families hauled away and destroyed in the death camps. The stories and the atrocities pile up, the odd escape shining like diamonds in dirt, the occasional collaborator meeting justice at the end of the rope raising an eyebrow of satisfaction.
It’s a daunting undertaking, but a fitting one for a narrative detailing the extinction of 75% of Amsterdam’s Jewish population. The most obvious inference is clear, we’re on a precipice and the hideous acts of the past we thought could never happen again don’t seem so implausible. Occupied City gives us the slow, insidious escalation of restrictions and outrages leading up to the Holocaust. It’s scale brings to mind Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah – itself devoid of archive footage – it’s parallel placing of mundanity next to horror a similar sensation to The Zone of Interest.
By its very nature Occupied City is gruelling. The intention seems to be to impress upon the viewer the sheer logistical effort the Nazis expelled keeping an entire city under its boot for five years. There are inevitable sections where one feels numbed, and thereafter guilty that the description of another doomed soul’s fate drifts through the consciousness without due consideration. It also evokes the power of the State, in the 1940s and in its Pandemic-era footage of armed police scattering anti-lockdown protestors. The parallels are there to be made should you wish. There’s no handholding or anything like an authorial voice. Sometimes the footage is simply of a building where something awful happened. Elsewhere, Hyams tells us that wartime blackouts led to an explosion of interest in astronomy, information that seems to have no bearing of what’s onscreen. Everything is fragmented, scattered, and perhaps unreliable, like memory itself.
As a feat of compilation, archiving, and editing, Occupied City is deeply impressive. As a narrative it’s frustrating, relentless, but sometimes almost narcotic. There’s a barbiturate somnolence that sets in, forcing us to ponder how we we respond to death on an industrial scale in other contemporary wars, or to another school shooting, or more gang-on-gang violence, or another sinking dinghy in the channel. At what point does our empathetic stretch past its limits? When do we drop the portcullis as our capacity for more stories of senseless violence is reached? Who even watches a four-hour Holocaust documentary, and for what reason? Perhaps Occupied City‘s greatest achievement lies beyond its strange dislocation of sight and sound, beyond the feverish moral gymnastics it provokes in its echo location of past and present. It’s both expansive in how it asks us to consider the massive abstract concepts and deeply personal in how it asks us to question how we even begin to perceive such ideas. It’s a hard sell and a harder watch for sure, but in many ways it’s an extraordinary document.
In selected cinemas from Fri 9 Feb 2024