Director Steve McQueen explores life under occupation

Director Steve McQueen explores life under occupation
Past and present collide in Steve McQueen and Bianca Stigter’s Occupied City, an experimental documentary about Amsterdam under Nazi occupation.

The word ‘occupation’ hangs over daily life like a dark cloud by the time Steve McQueen and Bianca Stigter’s new film Occupied City hits cinemas in February 2024.

A collaboration between the director-artist and his journalist-filmmaker partner in film (and life), the epic 4.5 hour documentary is a product of three years of shooting during Covid – around 230 shoot days, 36 hours of footage, and a million feet of 35mm film. An endurance test of filmmaking – it cracks open the history of the Nazi occupation in Amsterdam in a way that changes how you will look at the world around you forever.

Based on the book Atlas Of An Occupied City by Bianca Stigter – a 20-year research project into 2,100 addresses in the city during the Nazi occupation – the film uses voiceover narration to tell the story of 130 of those addresses, set against footage of the modern-day city. Bianca has said that the book evolved from a desire to understand how the Germans took control in ‘practical terms’ and the strangeness of living in places like schools, squares, homes and parks that were once sites of terrible atrocity and violence. As history becomes more distant – and threatens to repeat itself – how can we keep these memories fresh in our minds?

The film would have been powerful if it had been made entirely with archive footage. But it’s the contrast between the past and present, layered over each other in this uncanny way, which resensitises you and engages your brain in a different way. The film is very specifically the story of Amsterdam, 1940-1945, and yet somehow the story of every occupied city; a steady drip of horrors that become an oppressive weight on your chest over the long run time.

Steve said in an interview with A24: “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.”

As you watch scenes of children playing and young people partying in squares of centuries-old architecture you hear stories of mass executions, sniper attacks and the gathering-up of Jewish people to be sent to death camps. As you see caring parents going about their chores and preparing meals for children in cosy houses you hear stories of mass suicides of Jewish families in the same spaces, who knew there was no other way out.

But the stories are told matter-of-factly. And the footage of modern life in Amsterdam is largely so joyful, free and often funny (even with the Covid restrictions, which provide some interesting parallels). There are also many stories of resistance in the narration. “Ultimately, we won the war,” Steve has said in an interview. “And we’re not going to let fascism win again.”

The final scene shows a young boy at his bah mitzvah – brimming with the potential of his life ahead of him. You are left feeling that there is everything to play for. And questioning what stories lie under the pavements of your own streets.

Huck sat down with Steve and Bianca to find out more about their journey with Occupied City.

Huck: One of the most striking things I found – considering the harrowing nature of the material – is that I didn’t feel emotionally manipulated by the film. Steve, you said in an interview that you intended for it to be informational and the emotion to come from the viewer. Why was that important to you both?

Bianca: Well, that was already the way that I wrote the text for the book. It had to be as factual as possible because, precisely as you say, the facts don’t need me to manipulate them and make you feel something. They can do that job themselves very well. I don’t need to be in between there and it’s much more pure and powerful when you just let the facts do their work. And I think that also informed the way the voiceover was done in the film.

Steve: You could get this text and still read it emotionally. You know it’s like reading poetry and hearing poetry. And we spoke to Melanie [Hyams, the narrator] about how we wanted it to be delivered was very, very important… What’s wonderful about Melanie is that she’s not of that time. She’s of now. And therefore she has a stake in the now. So there’s an optimism even when things are delivered in a very sort of neutral way. And with the neutrality it doesn’t mean a void of emotion. It just means a void of manipulation. So I was very happy about that.

Bianca: Also what I think was important is that you can hear it’s a young person’s voice. It is not a voice of authority, the voice of God they call it sometimes in documentaries – that knows everything and is going to tell us. She is with the viewer on a journey of discovery and she just happens to be one step in front of you.

Steve: As she reads it, you discover it.

Huck: And that was important because you wanted the viewer to engage with the information in a more active way?

Steve: Yes the responsibility was put on your lap. It’s important… We’re giving you something and you can do with it as you want. That’s one of the most powerful things. To be given that responsibility. Then you feel like you have a stake in it as well.

Bianca: Also it makes it read as something new and not dusty with cobwebs of, ‘We’ve heard this all 60 million times before.’ This sounds like it’s something new.

Huck: Because that’s the challenge right – to find new ways to tell these stories especially as the history becomes more distant?

Steve: I don’t think it’s a challenge. For me at least it’s not a challenge. It’s about making something that I believe in myself… As a filmmaker, as an artist, I’m trying to sort of do the best I can. And our job – my job – is to do something better. Cinema is 120 years old. It’s a baby. So what can be done? How can you do it? That’s what I like. It’s not a challenge – it’s what I do.

Huck: I was really struck by the fact the images and the words didn’t lead me to certain conclusions. How did you make sure you didn’t do that in the edit? It must have been harder to avoid that than not?

Steve: No, I just think we’re that good. To be frank. Put that down. We’re that good. In the way that what we’re trying to do is make something which is brilliant. Because the subject deserves it. Because the subject deserves it. Not because of ego. The subject is telling us what it needs, what it wants, what its standards are. And we have to reach those standards. To bring it into people’s psyche in a way which is not going to jade them or put them into a sort of familiar territory. It’s important. It’s that important. So therefore we have to rise to the occasion. That’s just how it is.

Huck: I wanted to ask about the book. It is not encyclopedic – it doesn’t cover everything. You said Bianca that there were 800,000 people living in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation so there were 800,000 stories. At what point did you know it was time to publish and put the book out?

Bianca: When the deadline was set. And the publishers said now you really have to put it out.

Steve: She’s still bloody working on it!

Bianca: The book is quite thick so at a certain moment the book form couldn’t hold anymore you know. So that’s it. There was a natural stop to that form… There’s still more stories that could be in it easily. More interesting addresses that come to light after the book was published.

Steve: But how can you not keep on thinking about it? That’s the thing I suppose. How can you not keep on thinking about it? This will be the third print of the book in the Netherlands and there’ll be more information.

Huck: Do people reach out to you after the exposure and publicity of the book and film with more stories?

Bianca: Yes sometimes. I get emails from people having an addition or new story to add.

Steve: Interestingly there’s no stories from people saying my mum or dad was in the Nazi party. No one admits to that. And there were lots.

Huck: Were you surprised by the way people reacted to you on the streets?

Steve: Well that was wonderful. Bianca will tell you. People were very welcoming. Doors would open to you. In a city people are a bit hostile – not hostile, a bit suspicious – but as soon as we spoke about Atlas of an Occupied City, the book, and also about what we were doing, doors were flung open to us. So there was a real generosity.

Bianca: It was very special.

Huck: It feels very observational throughout but then strikingly there’s that moment with the young girl about two thirds of the way through where she looks straight into the camera. That moment feels very powerful.

Steve: Yes I think again because it’s the future isn’t it? And [you think] who am I within this future? And who am I within this past? And how will my future be affected by the past? This girl had just been made a refugee from Ukraine. So it’s heavy you know.

Huck: And otherwise you were able to shoot without being noticed?

Steve: Yes I think Lennert [Hillege N.S.C] the DP was extraordinary and there was a ritual. When you’re shooting on film it’s like jiu-jitsu taekwondo filmmaking because there’s a process, there’s a real ritual. And that’s why I wanted to shoot on 35mm because I know it’s so precious that everyone’s attention would be on that five-minute reel of film. Everyone’s attention would be at its highest. When you’re shooting digitally it does have another psychological effect but film I knew that everyone would be on their toes because this is it. It’s shooting on a tightrope basically. Especially with this subject. Because you can’t really plan for it other than location. Not even the weather, not even what we’re going to see. It’s just – let’s go.

Bianca: It was amazing when I went to visit the set. There are big machines and lots of people but somehow they manage to become very unobtrusive and people just went about their days and it was very special.

Steve: My job as an artist – a lot of the job is to expect the unexpected.

Huck: The whole film feels very of the real world. We live in an age of image over-saturation and a lot of disinformation. You don’t know what to trust and you don’t know what’s real. Was there an intention with this film to have us all exist more in the real world for a moment and not so much in the digital world?

Steve: Hmmm. You’re a journalist, you can say that, you can write that, it’s your thing.

Bianca: That’s your theory – it sounds really good.

Huck: The night curfew section feels quite different tonally to the rest of the film – especially with the music and sound design and the way that it’s shot [the camera twists and turns around the empty city at night at speed]. Why did you want to include a section like that, which is a bit more spectacular?

Steve: Well Olly Coates’ music is extraordinary. Olly’s soundtrack is extraordinary. And the whole idea of curfew is that things are turned upside down. Everything’s been turned on its head. Literally. From the 1940s situation of curfew to the recent situation with Covid. These two curfews were polar opposites but the whole idea of having a moment of the night and illuminating the sort of presence of the past at night I thought was kind of interesting in the way of just working with that time, and travel, and the economy of travel with the tumbleweed kind of effect of the camera and moving through the streets. It was unique and I don’t know when that will ever happen again. So it was something that I had to catch.

Bianca: At the same time it was a breather. You get all this information and you’re just allowed to process it while you’re travelling through the city and maybe realising – oh my god everywhere here there are also other stories swirling around waiting to be found.

Steve: Yes, that’s excellent. It’s a way of digesting everything you’ve heard before. Just to take it in. A moment of inhale and exhale.

Huck: It is impossible to watch the film today and not consider everything happening – with rising antisemitism and the dehumanisation of another people [in Palestine]. It seems like history is doomed to repeat itself – but things like this film and this book give us a new language with which to understand and to resist. I was also very inspired by the stories of resistance in the film. Do you have hope in new generations to avoid the mistakes of the past?

Steve: I rely on the young people. I rely on them. I learn from them. I’ve learnt from my daughter. I’ve learnt from my son. I rely on them. They’re going to inherit this stuff and again I feel it’s one of those things where there’s nothing to lose and everything to win – everything to play for and nothing to lose.

Bianca: These kinds of things give the film even more urgency in my opinion. More things resonate while you’re watching it.

Occupied City is in cinemas now.

Follow writer Shelley Jones on Instagram.

Enjoyed this article? Like Huck on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

Latest on Huck

A Vibrant Portrait of Afropunk in South African Townships Today

A Vibrant Portrait of Afropunk in South African Townships Today

Karabo Mooki lifts the lid on Soweto’s countercultural scene, which offers a much-needed antidote to the systemic racism that endures in South Africa.

Written by: Miss Rosen

Dide is providing a voice for elite footballers and young people everywhere

Dide is providing a voice for elite footballers and young people everywhere

No one knows who he is, not even his teammates, but the Premier League’s masked rapper blends cold flow and drill-informed beats to interrogate the world around him.

Written by: Isaac Muk

On the Road with the Free Photographic Omnibus around 1970s Britain

On the Road with the Free Photographic Omnibus around 1970s Britain

Photographer Daniel Meadows took off around the UK in an old bus to capture a unique portrait of a changing nation.

Written by: Miss Rosen

Last week’s election should be a warning to Labour

Last week’s election should be a warning to Labour

Without delivering real change, really fast, Starmer risks setting the stage for a resurgent far-right argues Green New Deal Rising co-director Fatima Ibrahim

Written by: Fatima Ibrahim

At the Demolition Derby and County Fair in Upstate New York

At the Demolition Derby and County Fair in Upstate New York

Over the last two decades, photographer team Guzman have attended the fair with cameras in hand to crafting a portrait of community.

Written by: Miss Rosen

Labour have won by a landslide, now it’s time to abolish the Home Office

Labour have won by a landslide, now it’s time to abolish the Home Office

This new government needs to set out a radical new agenda, not slot obediently into the existing, failed system argues JCWI’s Ravishaan Rahel Muthiah.

Written by: Ravishaan Rahel Muthiah

Sign up to our newsletter

Issue 80: The Ziwe issue

Buy it now