Gemma Creagh looks at Steve McQueen’s L’Œil d’or nominated Occupied City.
At a time when the world is facing war on many fronts, Steve McQueen’s Occupied City utilises the form of film in a unique way, investigating the horrors and fallout of war. Narrated excerpts from Atlas of an Occupied City, Amsterdam 1940-1945 play over footage of present day Amsterdam. Each modern location shows moments of everyday life during and post COVID, while the detached voiceover of Melanie Hyam describes how in that exact space around eighty years ago a wealth of atrocities were committed during the occupation. The film footage reflects a comfortable western existence, a family eating dinner, live music, a public gathering, a child’s school, a dance studio – all a long way from the callous violence described in the audio overlay.
The Amsterdam Canal District is flagged as a UNESCO World Heritage site and the distinctive historical architecture mostly still stands intact since the Nazi occupation. In the initial sequences, McQueen observes the tension building between police and Dutch citizens during COVID restrictions, which escalates to a mild confrontation; this provides stark contrast to the oppressive restrictions imposed upon the Dutch and Jewish communities of the ’40s. While some of the images McQueen choses are linked thematically to the text; some are not and the innocent reenactments of the banality of living, highlight the gruesomeness of what occurred.
It’s the deft nature of the comparisons that’s most interesting; the tenuousness of the lightly drawn lines between the then versus the now. Occupied City examines how the shared cultural spaces, the operas, the schools, the museums were hijacked by the Nazis during the occupation. Art was used as a form of propaganda… and how these well established systems and wealth, once hijacked, propped up the oppression. This begs the question: is this not the case still? McQueen observes the Netherlands’ own dark colonial history and background in slave trading, a fact he records being awkwardly acknowledged by public servants during a memorial event. The oppressive wealth accumulated by the country, and the ostentatiousness of the privilege is on display too. This is evident in the lavish homes and buildings; in citizens dining in high end restaurants; in public spaces being used for a host of middle class activities whether it’s listening to live music or a rather ungraceful yoga session.
The runtime is four hours and twenty two minutes and this film hangs heavy for its entirety. This was nominated for a L’Œil d’or at Cannes, however Occupied City could only be loosely classed as a documentary, and often veers more towards experimental in form. The narration is evenly read, unemotive and akin to an audio book. On one hand the facts are so harrowing, yet on the other, the detached delivery and duration make it hard to process. This film was shot over three years and on 35mm film. The technical elements are striking, the pacing and variance of footage and spaces shown all underpin a shifting message however the real structure, the cohesive emotional cues, are found in the sound design.
Having moved to Amsterdam, McQueen likened staying in the city to living with ghosts. And this is unfortunately a timely and haunting observational work. With World War II soon to be wiped from living memory, and as the right rises again in Europe, Occupied City is a difficult but important piece of observed art.