“They break Hyams’ seemingly endless stream of information, which requires patience and investment on the part of the viewer, but those willing to give it get a rich and sobering experience and a quiet warning back: even if the past may no longer be visible, keep it alive by telling its stories.”
Demolished. It’s a word you will hear a lot while watching Steve McQueen’s monumental documentary Occupied City, a look at the history of his adoptive city during the World War II years, engraved in locations that still exist even if the physical traces of the stories that took place there have largely been erased, indeed demolished. Stories of terror, stories of resistance, stories of a city under occupation. Stories that should never be forgotten; some of them aren’t, to be true, but some of them are not truly known even among the inhabitants of the city in question, Amsterdam. And how could they be, as the past has been literally paved over and rebuilt. A project of impressive scale and with seemingly unlimited access, Occupied City is a tribute to the heroes of the past and the city that housed them, and a reminder that the past can easily become the present again if we forget.
Based on the extensively researched and rich book Atlas of an Occupied City by Bianca Stigter, McQueen’s long-time partner who also wrote the screenplay, Occupied City almost literally goes door to door as it randomly hops through the city in a rough chronological order. Each address, each square, each park seems to have its story, solemnly narrated by Melanie Hyams. They tell of the Jewish community of Amsterdam, forced to seek the hidden places of the city, though inevitably most would get caught and end up in the places we will never forget: Auschwitz, Dachau, Mauthausen, Sobibor. They also tell stories of resistance, from the population of Amsterdam as a whole (the February 1941 strike the most well-known) and from groups or individuals, the heroes The Netherlands has always remembered. But do we still remember the Jews that were reported, outside that one girl from the diary? Sadly, most Dutch do not, or very few, and that is in part because their stories aren’t widely known. No wonder, when the physical world in which their stories took place has vanished.
The risk of forgetting becomes apparent in the way McQueen portrays the Amsterdam of today, in particular when it comes to acts of resistance. Several demonstrations, held in locations that hold their own history of resistance, are shown throughout the film. Most of them are progressive and aimed at equality and a better world: climate change marches, an official apology from the city for its involvement in the slave trade, a rally against rising fascism. The first one we see comes on the brink of the country’s first lockdown during COVID times: a demonstration against the strict measures and the government’s COVID policies. At first glance one might feel as if McQueen sympathizes here: resistance against a government, a police force that doesn’t take half-measures in driving the protesters apart. The images may draw unwanted and unintended parallels. But digging a little deeper, and with knowledge of the rhetoric and tone of the protesters in question, McQueen’s intentions become clear. Many in the crowd equated the government and its, in their eyes, draconian measures to the Nazi regime. Yet Occupied City shows that this equation goes severely limp, indeed painting the demonstrators as ill-informed and gullible for misinformation and a narrative that allows far-right elements to cover their true faces.
Much of the film was shot during the pandemic, a poignant choice. Lockdowns and curfews had not been seen since the war; neither had the empty streets. A dreamy (or is it nightmarish) sequence through Amsterdam at night, hardly a soul out, is the film’s most poetic moment, a short reprieve from the stream of information Hyams spews at us. It is also a reminder that the pandemic was the first time since the middle of the last century that Amsterdam as a whole went through an ordeal of this size together. It may not have involved deportations, conspiracy theorists be damned, but it was a collective burden, a misery that was shared. And yet, as both Hyams’ stories and McQueen’s observing images show, in a sense life simply went on. McQueen throws the occasional other lyrical moment into the mix (and an intermission, thankfully; he kindly reminded everyone where the toilets in Debussy were located). A young Ukrainian refugee, smiling and throwing a long and curious look into the camera. The bar mitzvah of a young black, Jewish boy, unmistakably Dutch, a hopeful combination in itself. They break Hyams’ seemingly endless stream of information, which requires patience and investment on the part of the viewer, but those willing to give it get a rich and sobering experience and a quiet warning back: even if the past may no longer be visible, keep it alive by telling its stories.