wed 17/07/2024

Occupied City review - unquiet Nazi crimes | reviews, news & interviews

Occupied City review - unquiet Nazi crimes

Occupied City review - unquiet Nazi crimes

Steve McQueen’s cool double-portrait of Amsterdam trauma

'McQueen simply revels in the empty streets, spinning and inverting the camera in an abstract urban montage'

“I feel as if I am live reporting from a shipwreck,” Dutch-Jewish journalist Philip Mechanicus wrote en route to his concentration camp murder. Steve McQueen’s four-hour reverie on Amsterdam’s Nazi occupation teases out the scars of that arbitrary, vicious time beneath his adopted home’s placid streets. Filming during 2020’s pandemic, this becomes a time-jumping double-portrait of his adopted home city, though the inexact mirroring often cracks.

McQueen’s Dutch wife Bianca Sitgers’ book Atlas of an Occupied City (Amsterdam 1940-1945) led him to visit its addresses and use her text, which flatly reconstructs a sadistic system: a nurse smuggles Jews to safety, so “the Germans shot her, and threw her body in the canal”. The Holocaust festers at Amsterdam’s heart. Jewish life was incrementally constricted and a protesting general strike put down, preparing the ground for 1942’s deportations, where Dutch Jews died in Europe’s highest proportion. But this is only the central part of a traumatised nervous system of resistance, collaboration, random killings, secret lives and starvation which was wired into Amsterdam’s quaint avenues. There, McQueen contends, it remains.A parade in Occupied CityThe director’s characteristically gorgeous, 35mm compositions catch summer light and neon dark in angled, hyper-real footage which should suggest the lived Forties present. In fact, even when buildings are the same, it’s hard to find the buried past beneath this polished surface. The profound dislocation of Christian Petzold’s Transit (2018), a modern-dress adaptation of a Forties novel of refugees fleeing fascism, and Paul Verhoeven’s vividly visceral Black Book (2006), from a director who recalls the occupation, aren’t attempted by this often static, long-shot approach.

It’s mostly in ordinary upstairs flats that eerie simultaneity grips. Where a middle-aged man murmurs to his cat on their sofa, 21 Jews hid, sleeping cramped on the floor, enforced intimacy leading to sex under death’s suffocating shadow: “Necessity,” one wrote, “knows no law.” A scientist’s bookshelves sit where a Jewish cancer researcher continued his work for the Nazis, wife hostage, children murdered. A school full of happy, liberally educated children had a torture chamber basement. At another, segregated for Jews till its classes ebbed to the camps, a current child’s scream ends the scene.

While Sitgers’ text builds its case, McQueen’s mind wanders into the city during its Covid summer. He simply revels in the empty streets, spinning and inverting the camera in an abstract urban montage, finding magical grace in the vacated city. Supernal relief was found too in 1944’s Hunger Winter, when 20,000 Dutch starved to death, as a diary recalls “ghostly” candlelit music stands in an otherwise dark, freezing church concert. “So, this other world did still exist,” the writer discovers, clinging to it.Canal swimmer in Occupied CityMcQueen’s apparent parallelling of Nazi crackdowns and Dutch police moving in on lockdown protests, as curfews are brought in for the first time since the war, is more dubious, especially given the conspiratorial fascism such crowds promote. But Small Axe’s director may see police water-cannon and cavalry charges less equably than some, and anti-racist and environmental rallies are also part of his Amsterdam. Fascism is resurgent, and its suppressed ghosts are not quiet.

While forensically reconstructing a Nazi crime scene, McQueen is also curiously discovering his wife’s city, watching young black kids contemplating Covid news on their phones, and a young woman cycling through a sun-sparked insect cloud. This dilutes Forties horror already spread coolly thin, but has its own value.

A last scene of a mixed-race boy’s bar mitzvah and sprint out of his synagogue’s golden doors is intensely moving proof of Dutch Jewry’s narrow survival, and wide open, unfinished future.

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