Steve McQueen’s new documentary juxtaposes the past with the present and breaks the traditional narrative style to bring the facts of the holocaust into the light, writes Adrian Pennington.
It seems we’ve now arrived at a new phase of storytelling about the Nazi era. While most of those with personal experience of the Holocaust have passed on, we are left with the trickier task of recalling history.
The Zone of Interest directed by Jonathan Glazer is one such attempt to keep that history potent and fellow British filmmaker Steve McQueen has produced another fresh perspective.
In his mammoth feature documentary Occupied City, McQueen literally puts the past in a perpetual dialogue with the present. Nothing in the film, which is entirely shot in Amsterdam, contains archive stills or colourised footage or stock imagery or talking heads – none of the material of a routine documentary about WWII. Instead, his camera roams modern streets alighting on seemingly random everyday scenes by canals, buildings, playgrounds and houses while a narration tells us what was happening in that exact same spot when the city was occupied by the Nazis in 1942.
“In Amsterdam, you have a city where many of the buildings people used in the ’40s are still here, still of the same scale,” McQueen states in the film’s production notes. “They are being used in different ways from the ’40s, but not that much has visibly changed.”
McQueen lives in Amsterdam and discovered that his daughter’s school used to be a SS interrogation centre. More than 1,000 brass plates embedded in Amsterdam streets are inscribed with names of those murdered by the Nazis.
“It’s almost like Pompeii in a way. The past is right there, physically, within our present.”
He made the film with his Dutch wife, the director and producer, Bianca Stigter, who had authored a historical encyclopedia of the occupation called Atlas of an Occupied City: Amsterdam 1940-1945.
They conceived the film as being almost like an archaeological excavation, bringing the past out into the current city and reactivating 80 year-old stories. The film puts the viewer in the unusual position of having to negotiate two different elements: what you’re seeing and the information you’re hearing, both of which are very strange.
“Out of that negotiation, I think a third thing emerges and I don’t know what that is exactly, or how to describe it, but it’s what I was after,” McQueen said. “As a viewer, I think sometimes you follow the voiceover, sometimes you are drawn into the images, but then, something else happens in your mind, where the connections are coming together. That third thing is maybe where other people’s stories from decades ago interact with our own inner stories. There’s dismay and sorrow in watching the film, but it’s also beautiful and inspiring, because it makes you think about how memories of these vital historical events are sustained by the living.”
McQueen grew up in London and while “living with ghosts” as he has put it may be integral to the psyche of Amsterdam natives, the idea of the present interacting with the past, the living and the dead, is what triggered his interest.
Initially, he thought of using archive footage to project on top of the present day footage, but then decided to use narration based on Stigter’s text and to merge sound (past) and vision (present) together.
Behind the Scenes: Occupied City - Film Choices
Cinematographer Lennert Hillege filmed on 35mm which McQueen preferred over digital in order to make every shot count.
“The standard way of shooting documentaries isn’t for me,” he said. “I’m interested in possibility and finding the moment. And that is about trust, about waiting, and having the skill to sort of see a thing before it happens, and to see the evidence of things that are invisible. It’s almost like a Miles Davis philosophy, where it’s more about the silence between the notes than the notes themselves. And that’s what I was after in this film. Embracing the unexpected as if you knew it was always there.”
Anne Frank’s house is the country’s major tourist attraction but there were 800,000 people living in Amsterdam in 1940 so there are potentially 800,000 stories to tell. For that reason, and also because her address on Prinsengracht is now a “static” museum, the annex where she hid is not included (though there are quotes from her diary in the film).
McQueen, who began his career making video installation art, is also preparing a “36-hour sculptural version” as an art work. Of the four-hour long cinema cut he said, “It needed to be a journey. It takes time to familiarise yourself with the feeling of a city and there has to be room for that. It’s a very different thing from watching interviews. You kind of go onto another mode, and it’s okay to drift in and out.”
Similar to Glazer’s approach with The Zone of Interest, McQueen is careful not to push the audience in a particular way by manipulating what they should feel. The narration, for example, is deliberately pitched to be almost non-committal and matter of fact.
“I think it helps the viewer to draw their own pictures in their mind, because they’re not given any particular emphasis or dramatic sort of leaning,” he said.
The facts can speak for themselves.
Behind the Scenes: Occupied City - Covid Conditions
In 2020, when they shot most of the film, the visible landscape of Amsterdam changed perhaps in ways it hadn’t since the 1940s. It became a ghost town under Covid conditions, as if time had stuck.
“As I started editing and looking back at the footage, it was clear the film is partially a document of this time, of its strangeness and its peril,” he said. “And the stories of the occupation became timelier. It felt like everything in this moment had very high stakes and everything was heightened by several notches. And it is equally about learning from the past. It was very unsettling to be making a film about the occupation and all the denialism that went on, while seeing this resurgence of fascism, racism, and anti-Semitism. It’s a reminder of how things can develop.”
Occupied City ends with a bar mitzvah ceremony because it was important to McQueen and Stigter to show the persistence of Jewish life in Amsterdam.
“I didn’t have an ending until a friend of mine’s son was having a bar mitzvah and that was the last thing we shot, and it was a gorgeous way to close the film. To see these young people, with all their possibility, and to have the Rabbi saying to the younger brother ‘you’re next,’ I think it takes us beyond the present and shows how the past will continue to survive.
“We can do that by making sure [fascism] doesn’t happen again. That’s why Bianca wrote her book. That’s why I made this film. The hope is in the future of these kids you see in the film, the hope of what they might be. We’re trying to clear the path for these young people. That’s what you can do.”
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