Monday 13 May 2024

Occupied City [2023]

 Steve McQueen’s shattering “city symphony” Occupied City is a powerful act of remembering, and rigorous preservation of cultural memory of Amsterdam during Nazi occupation. Based on “Atlas of an Occupied City, Amsterdam 1940-1945” – the encyclopaedic tome by Dutch historian Bianca Stigter, who’s also McQueen’s wife and creative partner – the British filmmaker shot a staggering 36 hours of footage capturing all the 2000-plus addresses recorded in it, which he then edited into this mammoth 4-hour documentary covering 130 of those sites. This extraordinary memorialization of that grotesque period was made particularly haunting by its juxtaposition of ghosts of the past – catalogued by Melanie Hyams’s eerily neutral narration – with images of present-day Amsterdam that he shot in 35mm through the pandemic and beyond. The voiceover chronicled anecdotes of execution and deportation, collusion and betrayal, desperation and survival, and even defiance and resistance; the visuals, conversely, ranged from freewheeling depictions of people engaged in activities unsettlingly incongruous to what had transpired at those locations, albeit separated by time, to present-day demonstrations, including dissenting against lockdowns, acknowledging Dutch slave-trades, climate justice rallies, and solidarity  with immigrant and Palestinian rights. These, in turn, were interspersed with couple of hypnotic tracking shots of night and daytime streets. While McQueen’s avoidance of archival footage has drawn comparisons with Lanzamann’s monumental Holocaust treatise Shoah, I found it formally closer to Perel’s scalding docu Corporate Accountability – a cutting exposé on how corporations enabled repression and enforced disappearances during the military dictatorship in Argentina – in their smashing of past and present. The director, incidentally, came to know during the filming that the schools that his daughter and son attend were once the SS headquarters and a Nazi-run prison, respectively.

Director: Steve McQueen

Genre: Documentary/Political History

Language: English/Dutch

Country: Netherlands

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