New approaches to cinema are few and far between––as rare as a ticket to the lone Killers of the Flower Moon press screening at the 76th Cannes Film Festival––and they crash and burn in spectacular fashion more often than they land. At the same time, new modes of expression, failed or formative, push the medium forward. They comment on cinematic language and play with cinematic form––at the very least reminding us what’s possible, and at best redefining that. Braving the unknown is a bold choice for any filmmaker. But bravery doesn’t equal great art. It’s just a rung on the ladder. And in the case of Occupied City, it’s one of the only rungs on an unscalable ladder.
Steve McQueen’s first documentary feels more like an unedited podcast with dizzying visual accompaniment than a feature film, despite ruminating on its subject, Amsterdam under Nazi occupation, for more than four hours. It’s as if a scholar––here it’s Bianca Stigter: Dutch journalist, author, and documentarian who is married to McQueen––dumped their research on us in a monotonous marathon voiceover. The visual element––at first fascinating, eventually reduced to distraction––amounts to an Amsterdam address book, often as dry as a rolodex itself.
We’re shown an image of a townhouse in contemporary Amsterdam, or a buzzing square, or a doorway in the Red Light District, modern life moving all around it. The narrator reads the address and barrels headfirst into a story that took place in this location under Nazi rule, between 1940-1945. Such as how the Nazis tried to claim Rembrandt and erase Mendelsohn. Or how they tried to conquer the Netherlands through strategically placed, lesser-known German politicians. Or how a Dutch woman joined the SS just to stay in Amsterdam, her favorite city. Or how Himmler used to work in the very flat we’re being shown.
Stories come in one after the other in a blur until some wordless explosion of style (e.g. drones barrel-rolling through tunnels for several minutes to heavy cello, or an old woman dancing to the “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” in her historically significant apartment, or a house show for a noise band) draws back our focus, only to disappear, another wave of tales in its wake. The research is astounding, but the format and delivery make it difficult to understand in the moment, countless details lost to disparate thoughts related to the modern image onscreen.
There’s no chronology to the film, no transition––much less a connection––between stories. We bounce from 1944 to 1942 back to 1944, then to 1941, ‘42, ‘41, ‘44, ‘42, ‘40, ‘41, ‘43, ‘42 and so on. Most shots of locations are static, natural, un-produced––a John Wilson element to the documentary shoot that ranges from funny to infuriating. Most accounts only last a few minutes and whether or not they strike a chord, by the time a few more have passed, it’s difficult to remember those that have already been told.
At first the idea that one of these histories took place in the modern space we’re staring at hits hard. The conceit that we might understand them anew with today’s imagery, that they might feel more real and in that sense beckon us to wrestle with human depravity from a fresh perspective, is well-founded on paper. It sounds like an engaging concept. But I can’t imagine making it out of the editing room without having realized the opposite is true: the images, with no historical visual context, simply feel detached from these tales, and it becomes a choice: watch the footage or listen to the story. It feels silly to close your eyes or plug your ears, so spectatorship naturally becomes a long internal battle. You want to take it all in, but you can’t. Even if you can meld image and narrative, there are simply too many to remember.
One wonders if McQueen and Stigter are challenging us to remember with the charge of a form that won’t allow us to. Perhaps Occupied City is an experiment in our collective futile attempt to understand something so horrifically incommunicable, one that posits, “When we stare too long at the present, we obscure the past.”
The length, believe it or not, isn’t an issue. If anything, such ample space allows us to sink into the difficulty of processing stories built on old names, faces, facts, and residencies while inhabiting the modern space that’s recontextualized it. Occupied City‘s duration and scope is one of its benefits. It’s an ambitious effort that is, without a doubt, loaded with commentary on film language.
In a four-and-a-half-hour film, of course, there are exceptions to the rule. Some things stick, but it’s the footage that remains in memory most. The aforementioned style explosions mark the majority of those moments. But the film was also largely shot during the pandemic, which allowed McQueen to capture major Amsterdam locations with a pressurized stillness and eerie lack of humanity that feel heavy, like the stories surrounding them. And protests captured in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murders make for some of the more riveting doc footage of the year so far.
McQueen is one of the best directors working, so it should come as no surprise that expectations were high. Even an hour in, understanding the concept and recognizing its limitations, I expected him to reveal something to us that he’d discovered in the process himself––something about the way we process stories in a format like this, or a therapeutic connective tissue in the images that bring us closer to the past, or fresh perspective. But maybe he’s just revealing that history is best served with visual historical context.
Occupied City premiered at the 2023 Cannes Fim Festival.