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Occupied City review – Steve McQueen’s moving meditation on wartime Amsterdam

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Occupied City review – Steve McQueen’s moving meditation on wartime Amsterdam

Steve McQueen’s monumental movie is an enormous survey-meditation on the wartime historical past and psychogeography of his adopted metropolis: Amsterdam, primarily based on his spouse Bianca Stigter’s Dutch-language guide Atlas of an Occupied Metropolis, Amsterdam 1940-1945.

With a peaceful and undemonstrative narrative voiceover from Melanie Hyams, the movie tracks day-to-day life in Amsterdam underneath Nazi rule. It spans the invasion in 1940; the institution of the NSB, the collaborationist Dutch Nazi social gathering; the more and more brutal repression and deportation of Jewish populations to the dying camps; after which the “starvation winter” of 1944 to 1945 as meals and gas grew to become scarce within the metropolis and the Nazis displayed a ugly mixture of panic and fanaticism because the allies closed in.

What McQueen does is successfully symbolize the maps and determine legends of the guide on display screen: the digicam reveals us the modern-day indoor and out of doors scenes on particular person streets, canals, squares, buildings and jetties the place the barbarity unfolded – however reveals them as they’re now, with Twenty first-century folks going about their enterprise whereas Hyams’ narration coolly summarises what occurred in every explicit spot, generally including that the unique constructing has been “demolished”. A jail yard the place Jews had been compelled to parade round chanting: “I’m a Jew, beat me to dying, it’s my very own fault” is now an open area missed by the Laborious Rock Cafe. The headquarters of the key police was on the location of what’s now a college.

Occupied Metropolis lasts a bit of greater than 4 hours, with an intermission, and the impact is one thing like an big cinematic frieze or tapestry, or maybe an set up. However additionally it is like an quaint “city symphony” movie, and, in its method, maybe bears the affect of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. It asks exhausting questions of what we take into consideration the gulf between previous and current. Once we take into consideration Nazi rule in Amsterdam, we consider … what? Flickering black-and-white newsreel footage, semi-familiar landmarks in monochrome, pictures of swastikas, an alien show of historical past, vacuum-sealed previously. However McQueen reveals us the fashionable world, in 4K decision and there’s a gradual realisation that for these concerned in 1940, the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam occurred similar to this: in residing color within the here-and-now, with fashionable hairstyles and garments.

Generally there’s a disconnect between previous and current. The positioning of a bygone horror may in 2023 be a scene of happiness: folks ice-skating on a frozen canal and having harmless enjoyable. At another place we see a commemorative occasion: the laying of wreaths. At different instances, there will probably be a parallel: in Dam Sq. the Nazi occupiers erected a bandstand; now we see a stage for out of doors efficiency. After which there are different, severe engagements with historical past and politics. We see an official assertion of apology for colonialism and slavery; we see an enormous and boisterous “local weather strike” by younger folks and an occasion for the murdered Dutch investigative journalist Peter R de Vries. The impact is to indicate us that the previous and current should not clear, with distinct layers of outdated/vital and new/insignificant: it’s extra fluid than that.

Often, there’s a bizarre frisson. A few of McQueen’s footage was shot through the Covid lockdown and the juxtaposition of this with Nazi oppression takes us – unintentionally – maybe a bit of near GB Information territory. And audiences could be shocked at how little emphasis is positioned on Anne Frank: it may effectively be that McQueen needed to take us away from well-trodden arguments, and definitely to maneuver away from the fashionable vacationer cliches of espresso retailers and intercourse employee home windows. Though on that final level there may be one other eerie historic echo in the best way by which sexual exercise between occupier and occupied was variously policed, tolerated and punished.

In its scale and seriousness, Occupied Metropolis permits its emotional implication to amass over its operating time. The impact is mysterious and transferring.

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