Occupied City

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Writer: Bianca Stigter

Director: Steve McQueen

Occupied City, Steve McQueen’s epic documentary, chronicles the different ways in which the people living in Amsterdam were affected by Nazi occupation in the 1940s. It is based on the book Atlas of an Occupied City, Amsterdam 1940-1945, by Bianca Stigter, McQueen’s wife and is entirely shot in Amsterdam, where the couple live, during and after lock down.

It’s an ambitious and often challenging film. McQueen captures endless scenes in the contemporary city while in Melanie Hyams’ narrative, we hear how each named apartment, house, office, square, canal side or park was once the scene of some atrocity. In May 1940 when the Germans entered Amsterdam, 10% of the 80,000 residents were Jewish. In the eyes of the Nazis, everyone else counted as Aryan. Clocks were put forward to Berlin time. Street names were changed. But at the same time, post-1944 Hitler wanted to hold onto the Netherlands.

The structure is deliberately sober and unsensational. Each segment follows the same outline. We’re told the name of the location, and as we watch what often seem incongruous day-to-day activities (young people messing around in a tram shelter, children playing on toboggans, ballet dancers warming up), we hear its history – how a named Dutch family once sheltered Jews here, or anti-Jewish measures were first imposed. Alongside these is an often chilling account of what subsequently happened. Huge numbers of Jews were deported, at first many sent to forced labour camps. As the Nazi regime progressed, more and more were sent to their deaths in concentration camps.

It’s a story we think we’re familiar with. But this new take by McQueen and Stigter shocks afresh, as we are confronted with what lies beneath the exterior of so many of Amsterdam’s elegant canal-side houses. We hear in detail how Nazi repression grew. Jews were banned from all swimming pools except the Lido, then that too was prohibited. Foundling babies were all deemed to be Jewish. Luxury stores were banned (McQueen films their modern day equivalents – Prada and Mulberry shop fronts being boarded up during the pandemic). We are taken inside unexpected venues. Footage inside an old Catholic church leads to a narrative about the role of the Church in supporting the young Dutch resistance activists that sprang up, performing acts of sabotage and helping Jews escape to England. It’s granular details, like this and the melting down of the city’s numerous church bells for armaments, that are so fascinating.

We learn the Rijksmuseum had already transferred its most precious works to northern castles before the Nazis arrived, but under occupation, were forbidden to display work by Jewish artists, forced to stage propaganda exhibitions glorifying the Reich. Germany even tried to co-opt Rembrandt as a German hero. The Concertgebouw had to cover up the gilded names of Jewish composers on its walls. All this adds a new dimension to our understanding of the Jews in the Netherlands. The 1944 Famine Winter was excrutiating. Personal testimony in the twenty-first century is necessarily scarce, but there’s an intriguing account of a woman’s euphoria as she finds first one, then two, then seven potatoes lying in the street. McQueen is surely right not to let his larger story come to rest on Anne Frank. She is mentioned, of course, but hers is one amongst thousands of other stories.

Was there a Jewish ghetto in Amsterdam, the equivalent of all those in other Europeans countries? The film talks of the old Jewish quarter, first established in 1493 by Sephardi Jews esaping persecution in Portugal and Spain. Under Nazi occupation, a huge fence and guarded bridges were built to keep the Jewish residents isolated. Before, that is, it is left empty.

Largely shot during the pandemic, the film makes much of what McQueen suggests are disturbingly authoritarian measures imposed on Dutch citizens. The camera follows peaceful protesters being commanded to leave the area, and then being dispersed by riot police and water cannon. Whether this trope works or not depends on your point of view. It could seem an unworthy comparison with what was endured under Nazi occupation.

McQueen has a wealth of footage to select from. Sometimes there is an obvious link between the visual and the spoken commentary, sometimes a deliberate disjunct. Much is shot in grey, chilly days, showing the city less as the beloved tourist destination, more as just another northern European city in the grip of winter. There are some charming scenes – beautiful Vermeer-like interiors; locals skating on a frozen canal – but the dominant mood of ordinariness is strongly captured by a long scene towards the end where the camera simply records the view from the driver’s cab of a tram, on its seemingly endless circle through empty streets.

Occupied City is released by Modern Films in UK and Irish cinemas from 9 February 2024.

The Reviews Hub Score

Ambitious, challenging

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