Review by Sean Boelman
Steve McQueen’s documentary Occupied City is an ambitious work, and much of it is quite effective. However, despite the the film clearly coming from a well-meaning place, and being incredibly well-executed, some aspects of the message are frustrating in the conjectures they try to make.
The documentary is based on Bianca Stigter’s book, Atlas of an Occupied City, Amsterdam 1940-1945, which tells the story of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands through images of the city today. It’s a fascinating concept, and Stitger and McQueen (who are married) clearly have a lot to say with this experimental work, but it does not always work.
From a purely technical standpoint, the movie is impressive. Eschewing archive footage for fly-on-the-wall modern-day captures, McQueen expertly uses juxtaposition in brilliant ways. The editing by Xander Nijsten is among the best in any film this year, fiction or nonfiction, in creating meaning — even if the meaning it creates is occasionally unfortunate.
The aspect of the movie that seems likely to alienate most viewers is its length. Clocking in at over four hours, the film gets its point across somewhat quickly, and while the remainder of the runtime is still effective, impatient viewers could grow weary of the experience. Mercifully, there is an intermission, but even so, it’s a taxing, devastating watch.
The narration by Melanie Hyams is somewhat dry, but it accomplishes precisely what it is intended to do. Her occasionally monotonous description, taken from Stigler’s nonfiction book, describes many atrocities in extreme levels of detail but does so in a way that reinforces the sheer level of horror we should feel.
However, the movie’s technical prowess can only carry it so far, as its thesis has mixed results. At many points, it seems that the film intends to purport a comparison between the lockdown in Amsterdam during the COVID-19 pandemic and the confinement of Jews in concentration camps during the Holocaust. This comparison is frankly baffling, and without this aside, this could have been a perfectly harrowing documentary. However, the movie’s brash ignorance in this regard is enough to leave a bad taste in viewers’ mouths.
It really is a shame that these portions of the film are so frustrating, as the rest of the movie’s political message is incredibly effective. Apart from the COVID stuff, the film is also interested in creating a connection between the presence of white supremacy in modern-day society and the Nazism that gave way to the Holocaust. This urgent call to action is where McQueen thrives most.
Occupied City has all the makings of a fantastic documentary. Unfortunately, a frustrating aside in its arguments prevents it from having the impact it could. Steve McQueen is undeniably a fantastic image-maker, but with this documentary being as long as it is, it’s hard to recommend through all of its problems.
Occupied City hits theaters on December 25.