Occupied City

An unofficial cut of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining titled The Shining Forwards and Backwards supposedly features hidden meanings and themes when a reversed version of the movie is superimposed on the original. Filmmaker Steve McQueen (director of the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave) applies a similar narrative with his very ambitious (and very long) documentary Occupied City. But instead of mirrored images, McQueen presents several locations around Amsterdam and has narrator Melanie Hyams recite the history that lives within each address. The results link the past and the present in interesting and uneven ways.

Adapting Bianca Stigter’s book Atlas of an Occupied City: Amsterdam 1940-1945, McQueen’s well-shot contemporary footage (which includes Amsterdam preparing for and enduring the global lockdown caused by the spread of COVID-19) has a wide range of perspectives; from everyday public activity to more private affairs to barren streets. But no matter how different each setting is, Hyams (using texts written by Stigter) has a fascinating story to pair with it, citing an upsetting Nazi-occupied era. Occupied City may be adjacent to the Holocaust, placing it in common company with other movies from this year (Irena’s Vow, One Life, Freud’s Last Session), but the contrast that McQueen creates gives the documentary a novel appeal. It’s a ghost tour through history.

But while McQueen’s doc is a wealth of information, don’t forget that Occupied City is, first and foremost, an experiment in filmmaking. Over the course of four-plus hours, Occupied City asks for a lot of patience. This is a project that is disciplined to its form and study, but also occasionally acts as an exercise in boundary-pushing tedium for the viewer. In order for this approach to find true longevity, McQueen needed to break up the pacing with man-on-the-street interviews or an alternative presentation that could relieve the monotony (see: Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America). Occupied City occasionally offers some dreamlike flourishes to the cinematography, but it’s not enough to distract movie goers. 

Even with a brief intermission, the audience wonders if a shorter version lives within this accomplished effort. Instead, to put the “damn” in Amsterdam, McQueen confirmed that what we’re seeing is a shorter version of his original 36-hour cut.


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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie

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