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McQueen's documentary 'Occupied City' provides 2 portraits of Amsterdam


The Academy Award-winning director Steve McQueen has a new film out in theaters this week called "Occupied City." It's a four-hour meditative documentary that provides two simultaneous portraits of Amsterdam - one, a journey through modern routine life - recent years of pandemic and protest - the other, a record of atrocities during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in the early 1940s.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: In May 1940, Amsterdam was taken over by the Germans. Immediately they set the clock forward so it was the same time in Amsterdam as in Berlin. The weather report disappeared from the newspapers. It was now a military secret. All streetlights were turned off. Dutch organizations were Nazi-ified (ph) or forbidden. Soon the Nazis started to ban Jews from parks, pools, shops, cafes and schools - from all public life. Music by Jewish composers could no longer be played. In 1941, they started rounding people up. In 1942, the deportations began.

FADEL: Earlier, I sat down with McQueen and his wife, the historian Bianca Stigter. She wrote "Atlas Of An Occupied City," the book that inspired this documentary. But Stigter says there are some key differences between the book and the film.

BIANCA STIGTER: The film is more of a free wandering through the city, and the book is more - practically set up like a guide book.

FADEL: The documentary is over four hours long, a runtime that McQueen adamantly defends.

STEVE MCQUEEN: This couldn't be an hour and a half film. It needed that contemplation, needed meditations to sort of get into the psyche of the cinema experience, and that time was very important for us.

FADEL: So this is a film that shows contemporary scenes of Amsterdam. There's not archival footage. It's narrated by a younger woman. Was there a purpose behind that choice? And help us understand what you were trying to convey.

MCQUEEN: I think it was a voice of not that time. It was the voice of now. There's optimism in the person's voice, even though there was a dispassionate sort of description of what was going on. And that was because I didn't want to manipulate the audience. It was about the audience sort of bringing the information, receiving the information for the first time. So it was about that moment where it was not about her being sort of dictating a history lesson. It was about her telling you what was happening.

FADEL: You shot part of the film during the COVID pandemic, and there is this juxtaposition at moments during the film where we see lockdowns in Amsterdam while listening to the narrator describe how Nazis used curfews to punish Jews during World War II. What were you trying to tell us with that juxtaposition?

MCQUEEN: It's about what happened here. It's - this is a meditation of what happened here in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. These things happened unfortunately. OK? So we're living now, and we're living with the evidence and the proof of what happened.

FADEL: You hear these horrific bits of information about what happened, and you see these contemporary scenes of life going on. There is this powerful disconnect with the information that I'm hearing from the narrator and the images that I'm seeing.

MCQUEEN: People have died and fought, fought and died for freedom and the freedom for people to do what they want. And these so-called horrible things happen, yes, but it was to do with war. And in war, horrible things happen. But now, you know, there's peace in Europe for now. Well, some parts of Europe, there's peace. You know, it would have been a different world had the Nazis had won the war, the Second World War.

STIGTER: The film in that way is very open and the texts you hear are very factual. So we are not telling you what to think. You can try to make a connection between what you hear about the past and what you see now or not. That is open to each individual viewer.

FADEL: You live in Amsterdam now. Do you feel that the city, that the citizens of Amsterdam, have a sense of this past that you are conveying here in the film?

MCQUEEN: Some do and some don't. I mean, just like slavery in America - some people have an understanding of it, some people don't. I mean, it's like anything, you know. Some people do, some people don't. I mean, last time Bianca and myself were in Washington, we stumbled across where - well, there was no marking then - there was this - where sort of the Solomon Northup slave pen was and where - his hotel where he was kidnapped in Washington. So, yeah, these things are there. And, you know, they're there. It's like - and as I said before, like when I came to Amsterdam in a real way, I thought that I was living with ghosts. So what "Occupied City" is about is illuminating that past. When you go to the movies, people try to connect. They try to connect the dots and try to make sense of things. But what you - lessons learned from this situation is nothing makes sense. Because you how can you even fathom or sort of get to an understanding of how, for example, you know, during this war, 6 million people, Jewish people and Roma and gay people died. Try and make sense of that.

STIGTER: This kind of pondering is what the movie makes you do. How do you connect the past...

MCQUEEN: How do you make sense out of it? Yeah.

STIGTER: ...And the present? Can you make sense out of it, or do you have to conclude that a lot of times, you cannot make sense of it? When you hear all the stories, at a certain moment you realize, hey, there's people from the past that we only see, if you see them, in pictures - it's in black and white and very grainy and looks very old - not our concern. And here you realize, but those people are us. They also lived in a world full of color and emotions. And this movie is also a mirror in that sense.

FADEL: Do you want viewers to take a message away from the film?

MCQUEEN: The message is that the Nazis didn't win, and there's this new generation of Jewish people who are thriving and living in Amsterdam. That's what the end of the movie is, obviously.

STIGTER: It's not a movie that spells it out in every minute. We give you the facts, and then it's also up to you to make up your own mind.


STIGTER: It's not a film wagging a finger at you.

MCQUEEN: Far from it.

STIGTER: It's a film that I hope will make you think for yourself.

MCQUEEN: Yeah. Exactly. It's not a history lesson, you know? There's tons of books that you can have and people know about, but again, it's about a meditation, a journey, if you will. And it's one of those situations where you - the responsibility is on you as a viewer, as a different way of looking at it as a narrative. It has to be, because otherwise you're just doing the same thing all over again.

FADEL: That was director Steve McQueen, along with his wife, the writer and historian Bianca Stigter. The film, "Occupied City," is out in theaters this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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