‘Occupied City’ Review: Steve McQueen’s Epic Holocaust Documentary Is a Disquieting Cinematic Essay

Cannes 2023: With a four-hour runtime, the filmmaker excavates Amsterdam’s harrowing WWII history via a journey through its present

Occupied City

We walk among ghosts in cities, storied urban constructs with layers of misty memories one can sense in their distinct smells, and perceive in their dated cracks and imperfections. There are hundreds of thousands of such ghosts that haunt Steve McQueen’s audacious documentary essay “Occupied City,” a 2023 Cannes premiere that is as much a hypnotizing and cumulatively disquieting cinematic artifact about the Holocaust and World War II-era Amsterdam as it is a stubbornly single-minded historical art installation.

The simplest way to describe “Occupied City” would be calling it an extensive guided tour of Amsterdam’s past that uses Bianca Stigter’s book, “Atlas of an Occupied City (Amsterdam 1940-1945)” as a compass. McQueen’s camera travels through 130 specific addresses in the present-day of his adopted town. Let’s call it near-present-day to be exact — “Occupied City” strolls through the Dutch capital mostly during the earliest days of the COVID lockdown, introducing each of these addresses as they relate both to their gut-wrenching World War II history and contemporary standing.

Door after door, town square after town square, hall after hall and lot after lot where some of the now knocked-down buildings used to exist, Stigter’s strong diction and disaffected voice narrates what took place in those locations in the years of the fascist occupation by Germany, after Nazi troops invaded the Netherlands to eliminate its Jewish, Sinti and Roma populations.

Stigter’s name will be familiar to some through her recent, soul-piercing Holocaust documentary “Three Minutes – A Lengthening,” which, through inventive editing, unearthed cavernous depths from a short home movie shot in 1938. (She and McQueen are married.)

Where “Three Minutes” lengthened one small, precious piece of memory and created a swelling sense of loss and empathy in that manner, “Occupied City” operates with the opposite philosophy by ambitiously shortening each of its 130 pieces of history and recounting them back to back. In other words, these two movies are distant and strangely oblique companion pieces to one another, through a shared nature that is cyclic yet boundless.

It’s important to note that “Occupied City” is long — very long, in fact — at a mammoth runtime of nearly 260 minutes (thankfully, with an intermission). This is not so much a complaint, but more an instructive heads-up: It’s only fair for a viewer to be aware of the time commitment (and emotional investment) that the film asks of them. Needless to say, it’s very much within the design of “Occupied City” to immerse, haunt, disturb and move the audience through that four-hour-and-change runtime.

Indeed, it would have been one thing for Stigter’s voice to talk about only a handful of these addresses. It’s an entirely different thing to experience the whole package, one that brings to mind Claude Lanzmann’s monumental “Shoah” and even Chantal Akerman’s (much shorter) “News From Home,” an immigrant’s New York City immersion that wears its ghosts on its sleeve. It’s exactly because of the repetitive, monotonous pace and structure of “Occupied City,” a film that smartly omits talking-head interviews and archival footage entirely, that McQueen’s excursion feels as spiritually searching as it does.

Still, there is no way not to tune out of “Occupied City” every now and then and wonder whether McQueen — a director who’s always had historical justice on his mind through “12 Years A Slave” and “Small Axe” — could have achieved the same effect with half of these addresses. (The answer is, possibly.)

But this somewhat futile deliberation will immediately take a backseat every time you’re fully with “Occupied City,” internalizing another devastating story about the Holocaust — whole families shattered and eradicated, people living in secret, clinging onto little hopes of survival, children murdered and populations systematically erased. Occasionally, you hear tales of resistance; residents selflessly hiding their neighbors and Nazi opposers bravely trying to make their voices heard at great risk.

What sets “Occupied City” in motion is one such story: A woman walks into the back cellar of her comfortable and modern present-day home as McQueen’s cinematographer, Lennert Hillege, reveals the annex in the house where Jewish people lived in hiding. The entire film is built on a similar conversation and correlation between the past and present, and the ghostly empty streets of Covid times deepens this linkage.

For every town square that now houses a designer store on its edges, there once was a war-time gathering area sometimes used to assemble Jewish people and carry out mass killings. For every modern apartment building that now inhabits modern city dwellers or contemporary independent businesses, there once was a modest living quarter of someone who helped the town’s Jewish population, or an ice cream parlor that bore witness to a pivotal civil uprising. For every locale that’s now a healthcare institution administering COVID vaccines there once were institutions run by Nazi doctors following the shocking rules of the racist and antisemitic blood protection law.

These stories are told as the viewer visits each and every address in their present day form, witnessing everything from lockdown-era Zoom weddings to anti-fascist protests. (While Anne Frank’s name is mentioned several times, the museum in her name isn’t visited.) Later on, outdoor shots of people reconnecting with their city after the introduction of the vaccine become a part of the tapestry: kids playing in snow, citizens swimming the canal, residents going about their days… We also visit cultural institutions and concert halls as part of the journey, where the names of Jewish composers like Mahler and Mendelssohn now stand but were once removed by the Nazi occupation.

Alongside a somber score by Oliver Coates (“Aftersun”) and some rare instances that use existing pieces of music like a Chopin ballade, “Occupied City” also recounts the city’s Hunger Winter of 1944, when the town suffered a man-made famine caused by the Nazis that killed thousands of people across the Netherlands. McQueen also makes room for the unveiling of the National Holocaust Names Memorial in 2021 which carries the names of 102,163 known Dutch victims of the Nazis. (When the war ended, Netherlands went down as the Western European country with the highest death rate of Jewish people — in Amsterdam alone more than 60,000 people were killed.)

Unsurprisingly, “Occupied City” hits its most interesting narrative nerve when present-day concerns occasionally collide and coalesce with the past to chilling effect. Black Lives Matter protests and other liberal uprisings that firmly object to the growing anti-refugee sentiments across Europe remind one of the dangerous and hatefully other-izing attitude that still plague societies.

McQueen gracefully ends his daring project with a tram ride across the city, on a note both otherworldly and subtly hopeful. It’s unlikely you will know exactly how to feel at the end of “Occupied City,” mostly due to its purposely taxing length — what comes first upon completing something so vast in one sitting is undeniable relief. But in the hours and days following its conclusion, you might just find your heart and soul demolished, and somehow made whole again.