Friday 9 February 2024

It happened here (and here and here): "Occupied City"

Last week I mentioned the critical debate that has sprung up around Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest. Steve McQueen's new WW2 doc Occupied City really is one tactic from start to finish - and one that, when stretched over a full four-and-a-half hours, becomes trying indeed. This was McQueen's pandemic project: in early 2021, the artist and filmmaker had just begun shooting around his adopted city of Amsterdam when the Dutch government announced the country was going back into lockdown. (For long stretches of the film, you imagine him pottering around town with his camera, trying to keep himself busy, as most of us were at that time.) What McQueen was filming, steered by his wife Bianca Stigter's non-fiction tome Atlas of an Occupied City: Amsterdam 1940-1945, was any location with a story to tell; more specifically, the story of the Nazi occupation and the subsequent purge of the city's Jewish population. For a minute or two at a time, we bear witness to shots of these streets, shops and tourist hotspots as they are now (or were during 2021-22), some of McQueen's subjects (the Rijksmuseum, the canals) more or less the same as they were during wartime, others (the Prada boutiques, fun pubs and domestic spaces) new or notably different. These largely static shots have been assembled one after the other, with a voiceover (credited to Melanie Hyams in the English-language version, and Carice van Houten in the Dutch cut) set over the top of them like an audio guide, cluing us in to what happened, house by house, sidestreet by sidestreet, district by district. In its essence, Occupied City is Shoah without the onscreen presence to point something out, redirect the gaze or interrogate. Where Claude Lanzmann - for virtually his entire career - was involved in reportage, attempting to nail down the barbarous and banal detail of Nazism, McQueen comes this way as an artist, at every turn leaving the precise correlation of sound and vision, past and present, open to viewer interpretation. He believes the free hand offers the best resistance to the iron fist of tyranny; but as Occupied City demonstrates, this approach presents its own risks.

All of which is to say Occupied City is a film riven with problems, some of which are interesting enough on a conceptual level to merit wrestling with. In The Zone of Interest, image and soundtrack achieved a brilliant parity: two distinct elements, telling two equally dreadful stories. In Occupied City, McQueen's sharply framed, crystalline imagery simply rolls all over Hyams' voiceover like a tank - and that is a problem, because so much of the film's rhetorical power is invested in the latter's words. Would it help to have a different narrator (or narrators)? We surely need something forceful from this testimony, someone capable of punching through the sensation we've been gathered for an artist's open-top bus tour of a major European metropolis; but Hyams has been encouraged to adopt a posh-adjacent, unvarying tone that suggests someone impassively reading a run of Tweets from one of those On This Day in 1940 accounts. And even if this ultra-engaged camera keeps moving forward, consistently alighting upon atmospheric, eyecatching material - a montage of shots from the upper decks of the city's gliding trams, kids taking advantage of a viral pause to go sledging - there's never much sense of how one shot relates to the next; for much of these 266 minutes, we appear to be bouncing around the city at random, scattering Lanzmann's formal rigour and geographic precision to the winds. In as much as McQueen looks to have worked up an editing strategy, it hinges on an unrelentingly facile contrast between, on one hand, the grim historical facts of territory that was once life-and-death and, on the other, the recorded sights and sounds of contemporary Dutch leisure and pleasure (coffee shops, nightclubs, etc.)

There's one final issue, and that's the complication of Covid. This part of the film is, I think, intended as the artist showing his working, which is to say the circumstances in which Occupied City was produced. (It is as the date a painter might sign in the corner of their canvas.) Yet early on in the film, McQueen introduces footage of an anti-lockdown protest, and the toing-and-froing that resulted. Are we meant to infer some parallel between germs and Nazis? Or between the onlooking police presence and the Nazi occupation Hyams has been telling us about - and thus to conclude that lockdown was its own form of tyranny? It could well be that McQueen intends to convey flux, the many ways in which a city and its people shift and lurch - how Amsterdam can find itself subject to fascism in one historical moment, mobilise en masse against it the next, and then elevate a wingnut like Geert Wilders to power a heartbeat later. But it's dangerously unclear and imprecise in this cut: these are vague gestures towards commentary and meaning, never once as powerful as Lanzmann's endeavours in a similar field, nor truthfully enough to hold the attention for four hours straight. What's semi-interesting here is that after several supremely assured, much-garlanded features that integrated elements of his erstwhile gallery career, McQueen is still visibly learning the difference between video art and cinema - notably that the latter requires even closer direction and greater shape, the better to prevent the viewer from wandering off either mentally or physically. There have been many less admirable and worthy lockdown projects than Occupied City, yet it has to count as both an artistic and ideological failure when the principal takehome from your lengthy film about the atrocities of Nazi occupation is how nice Amsterdam looks once the sun comes out.

Occupied City opens in selected cinemas from today.

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