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In Steve McQueen's 4-hour Cannes entry 'Occupied City,' Holocaust past meets Amsterdam present

CANNES, France (AP) — In Steve McQueen's “Occupied City,” a young woman with an even voice narrates, with rigorous specificity, Nazi encounters and crimes throughout Amsterdam during World War II.
Director Steve McQueen poses for portrait photographs for the film 'Occupied City' at the 76th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Wednesday, May 17, 2023. (Photo by Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP)

CANNES, France (AP) — In Steve McQueen's “Occupied City,” a young woman with an even voice narrates, with rigorous specificity, Nazi encounters and crimes throughout Amsterdam during World War II. The accounts go address by address, and so does McQueen's camera.

Yet the images that play throughout "Occupied City" are of modern day Amsterdam. In the roving, 4 hour-plus documentary made by McQueen, the “12 Years a Slave” director, with his partner, the Dutch documentarian and author Bianca Stigter, past and present are fused — or at least provocatively juxtaposed.

The effect can be startling, stirring and confounding. An elderly woman shifts to country music in an apartment complex where, we're told, a family was once arrested and sent to a concentration camp. A radio throbs with Bob Marley in a park where German officer once resided in the surrounding townhouses. A boy plays a virtual reality videogame where an execution took place.

“It’s almost like once upon a time there was this place called Earth,” McQueen said in an interview alongside Stigter.

“Occupied City,” which premiered Wednesday at the Cannes Film Festival, includes no archival footage or talking heads. Instead, it invites the viewer to consider the sometimes hard-to-fathom distance between one of history's darkest chapters and now. It's about remembering and forgetting.

“You want to wake people up and at the same time take them with you,” says McQueen, a British expat who has made Amsterdam his adoptive home with Stigter and their children.

The film is rooted in Stigter's illustrated book “Atlas of an Occupied City (Amsterdam 1940-1945)," which likewise catalogued the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam and the methodical murdering of its Jewish citizens. Stigter and McQueen have researched their own address. A few doors down, McQueen says, a Jewish man in hiding paid for his keep by teaching a family's child how to play piano. Their lessons were conducted quietly by tapping on the table.

“Occupied City” details how the Nazi occupation unfolded, door to door, name by name. At the same time, it can be hard to reconcile those accounts with the accompanying footage that captures mostly civic harmony throughout modern Amsterdam. Though “Occupied City,” which A24 financed and is distributing, touches on monuments and museums to the Holocaust, its imagery mostly lingers on the thriving life of a city. Life moves along, relentlessly.

“The present erases history," says McQueen. "There’s going to be a time when no one is going to be around who knew certain people. It kind of echoes what’s happening with the Second World War. There’s not a lot of people around who can testify about what actually went on in that time. They’re all passed. This film in some ways is erecting those memories in another way.”

McQueen is currently in post-production on a more traditional film about WWII set in London: “Blitz,” for Apple, starring Saoirse Ronan. Though in many ways McQueen is among the most fiercely contemporary filmmakers working, history has deeply animated much of his work. “12 Years a Slave” plunged into slavery-era America. His five-film anthology “Small Axe” spanned generations of West Indian immigrant life in London. He has dramatized the Irish hunger strike of 1981 ("Hunger") and, most recently, the Grenfell Tower tragedy ("Grenfell"), in which 72 died.

“I feel recording is very important. Witnessing is very important. Not looking away is very important,” he says. “The thing about cinema that’s powerful is an audience and a community witnessing something together. There’s nothing more special, there’s nothing more powerful than to have this kind of communal witness to something."

Stigter considers “Occupied City” not a history lesson but “an experience.”

“Your brain is programmed to match, to put together what you hear and what you see," she says. "Here, sometimes it’s hard to find that link. And sometimes you find it.”

The length of “Occupied City," which is playing with an intermission, encourages rumination. Drifting from narration to imagery and back again, McQueen says, is part of the experience. He would rather it was longer, if anything.

“There is a 36-hour version of this. We shot everything in the book. Maybe one day I’ll get a chance to show that,” says McQueen. “The actual method of shooting was about that. You just have to let it happen."

“The ordinary becomes extraordinary,” he adds. “As you get older, you realize it’s the small things in life that are the treasures. There’s a value. There’s a value to sitting with a cup of tea with a biscuit. I’ll have it any day.”

In the context of such horrors, some scenes, like a boy and girl gently kissing, become “monumental," Stigter says. Ghosts are everywhere, whether they're acknowledged or not. In the film, Amsterdam is also literally occupied — busy, running errands, biking and, more often than not, on their phones. “Oh my God,” sighs McQueen, shaking his head. “There it is in black and white, even though it's in color.”

Stigter and McQueen made “Occupied City” through the pandemic so it also shows the waves of COVID-19, from lockdown to vaccine protests to parties, once again, in the street. Another upheaval is quickly moved on from. Other losses come and go. The film is dedicated to Stigter's father, who died a year and a half ago.

“You try to hold onto things but they always slip away. It’s like this film. After four hours and 22 minutes, it’s done,” says McQueen. “What I want this film to be is almost like tossing a stone into a pond. The ripple effects afterwards, how it enters the viewer’s everyday life, that’s what I hope for."


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Jake Coyle, The Associated Press