Over the previous 15 years, Steve McQueen has turn into one among my favourite filmmakers. He’s made solely a handful of options, however in virtually each case he takes a topic of extraordinary magnitude (the 1971 IRA jail starvation strike in “Hunger,” the advanced horrors of slavery in “12 Years a Slave,” the collision of gritty metropolis politics and female revolt in “Widows,” the epochal crackdown on West Indian immigrants in London in “Mangrove”) and makes use of it to field open your coronary heart and thoughts. And he does all of it with a storytelling vibrance that’s directly heady and populist. So when it was introduced that McQueen can be directing his first documentary characteristic, and that it will sort out the topic of the Holocaust, coping with the victims of the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam (the town the place McQueen now lives), my anticipation took the type of pondering: How, with a director of McQueen’s talent and creativeness and gravity, might this be lower than fascinating?
But “Occupied City,” it’s my unhappy obligation to report, is an effective deal lower than fascinating. I’ll be blunt: The movie is a trial to sit down by means of, and you’re feeling that from virtually the opening moments. McQueen based mostly the film on “Atlas of an Occupied City: Amsterdam 1940-1945,” a meticulously researched chronicle of life throughout World War II in Amsterdam that was compiled by his spouse, the Dutch author, historian, and filmmaker Bianca Stigter. The documentary is 4 hours lengthy, and it consists virtually completely of dry descriptive passages, every one a couple of paragraph lengthy, learn by a narrator, by which we take heed to the compressed story of 1 sufferer, or a number of associated victims, of the Nazi regime.
Each thumbnail portrait takes a minute or so to learn, and every one begins with the dateline recitation of the tackle in Amsterdam the place the particular person’s story occurred. We then hear a quick description of who they had been and what occurred to them, a chronicle that ends, as a rule, with an outline of their loss of life in a focus camp (although not a notably evocative description — the ultimate line will likely be one thing alongside the strains of “He was murdered in Auschwitz in 1943”).
As every passage is being learn, it’s accompanied by an unblinking shot of the identical tackle in Amsterdam, filmed in the course of the current day. McQueen, in principle, appears to be attempting for a sort of meditation on the interface between previous and current. He shoots Amsterdam from each angle, to the purpose that in case you’ve by no means been there you could really feel such as you by no means have to go. We see townhouses alongside the canal, a swimming pool, an ice-cream parlor, a hospital, the red-light district, the inventory change, a park, a church, and boarded-up storefronts of worldwide model retailers (Prada, Tesla), because the movie was shot in the course of the pandemic. McQueen’s stationary digital camera, with the pictures in vivid coloration, lingers on the existential current-ness of every locale, encouraging us to recall that one thing horrific as soon as occurred at that very place, and so possibly it might once more.
“Occupied City” is generally a straight-up anecdotal historical past, a deadpan recitation of cruelty, tragedy, and the insidious horror of collaboration (there was a Dutch Nazi Party). Jews had been principally banned from the town in 1941, pressured to stay in a ghetto. The film reclaims their tales. Yet “Occupied City” doesn’t actually qualify as an oral historical past, although we’re listening to the anecdotes learn aloud. It’s extra like listening to 150 encyclopedia entries in a row. Since the topics aren’t drastically individualized, the movie’s just-the-facts strategy turns into naggingly repetitive, virtually ritualized. After some time we cease registering the variations within the tales. They begin to sound roughly the identical, as if that was the entire level.
At moments, McQueen seems to be aiming for an virtually Godardian feeling of dislocation. But Godard wasn’t shy about grabbing maintain of the Holocaust as a topic and shaking it; he might shake up your perceptions. The closest McQueen involves doing that arrives within the moderately baffling sequences by which he movies Amsterdam residents protesting towards the Covid lockdown, and we predict: Is he drawing some form of parallel between the pandemic protocols and what the Nazis did? That’s definitely what he appears to be doing. Or is he making the comparability solely to dismiss it?
The proven fact that we even must ask is, frankly, a bit weird. So is McQueen’s use of David Bowie’s “Golden Years” over a vaccine montage of older individuals getting the jab. (No pun supposed, however that’s the sort of needle drop I’d anticipate from Chris Columbus, not Steve McQueen.) And if McQueen isn’t reaching for glib and virtually borderline reactionary parallels, then what does the pandemic must do with the Holocaust anyway?
Our tradition usually tends to mythologize the Holocaust. Even in a documentary as intimate and grounded as “Shoah,” which is an excellent oral historical past (the tales instructed in that film make the individuals they’re about come alive for the viewers), the sweeping pictures of practice tracks and deserted loss of life camps add as much as a mesmeric portrait of evil looming up from the previous over the current. But in “Occupied City,” juxtaposing an aridly distant chronicle of life throughout World War II with indifferent pictures of the current is the one technique McQueen has up his sleeve.
You can really feel an echo of McQueen’s artwork installations — those he made earlier than he established himself as a filmmaker — within the self-conscious cataclysm-as-wallpaper aesthetic of “Occupied City.” If you had been wandering by means of a museum exhibit concerning the Holocaust and walked right into a darkened room the place this film was taking part in on a loop, you would possibly submerge your self in it for 5 or 10 minutes, and also you would possibly expertise its conceptual assertion concerning the Nazi period — actual residents torn from actual addresses that also exist, as if none of that had ever occurred — as a wake-up name.
But “Occupied City” topics you to the identical factor over and time and again, and it doesn’t take lengthy for the movie to turn into stultifying. The narrator, Melanie Hyams, reads all of it in the identical exact, cultivatedly “objective” tones, which performs as a sort of indifference. After a when you begin to despair of her posh English accent; is that this actually the voice the fabric known as for? I’m afraid that at 4 hours, “Occupied City” is sufficient to make the viewers really feel trapped. This is the banality of evil at its most airless and didactic, and it makes you surprise: Who did McQueen assume he was making this film for? If it performs in theaters, it appears all however designed to impress walk-outs. Perhaps its rightful house is streaming, however that’s only a method of claiming that in its stolid and forbidding method, it appears destined to be tossed, like all the pieces else, into the huge sea of content material.
“Shoah” was nine-and-a-half hours lengthy, and “The Sorrow and the Pity,” the good French Holocaust documentary that Woody Allen made (reverent) sport of in “Annie Hall,” was 4 hours, but each these movies, in several methods, are eminently accessible and dramatic experiences. They had been movies that led the viewers to revelation, and in doing so met us greater than midway. Of course, the entire concept of juxtaposing previous and current settings was finished — definitively — in Alain Resnais’s “Night and Fog” (1956), probably the most searing and indelible Holocaust documentary ever made (and it’s solely 33 minutes lengthy). Last yr’s “From Where They Stood,” about images taken throughout the focus camps by inmates, employed a variation on that very same method and created its personal haunting footnote to a historical past that’s nonetheless evolving. But in “Occupied City,” you don’t really feel historical past evolving. You really feel it withering, turning into smaller and extra summary, virtually bureaucratic in its detachment, till it feels as if the life had been drained out of it.