Steve McQueen’s 4-Hour Documentary on Nazi-Occupied Amsterdam Screens at Cannes Film Festival

Steve McQueen’s 4-Hour Documentary on Nazi-Occupied Amsterdam Screens at Cannes Film Festival

Shiryn Ghermezian

Director Steve McQueen and screenwriter Bianca Stigter pose at the 76th Cannes Film Festival photocall for the film “Occupied City” in Cannes, France, on May 18, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Steve McQueen’s Occupied City, an almost four-and-a-half hour documentary about the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam during World War II and the persecution of the city’s Jewish citizens during the period, premiered Wednesday at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival in France.

The narrated film by the Oscar-nominated 12 Years a Slave British filmmaker and his partner — Dutch documentarian, author and screenwriter Bianca Stigter — is based on Stigter’s illustrated book Atlas of an Occupied City (Amsterdam 1940-1945) on the same topic. The project, McQueen’s first documentary feature, includes no archival footage and instead intertwine moments from past and present-day Amsterdam in other ways.

“An elderly woman shifts to country music in an apartment complex where, we’re told, a family was once arrested and sent to a concentration camp,” reported the Associated Press, detailing scenes from the documentary. “A radio throbs with Bob Marley in a park where German officer once resided in the surrounding townhouses. A boy plays a virtual reality video game where an execution took place.”

McQueen and Stigter, who live in Amsterdam with their children, researched their own address in the city and discovered that only a few doors down, a Jewish man in hiding during the Holocaust paid for himself to remain safely hidden from the Nazis by teaching a family’s child how to play piano, the AP noted.

“You want to wake people up and at the same time take them with you,” McQueen told the publication. “The present erases history. There’s going to be a time when no one is going to be around who knew certain people. It kind of echoes what’s happening with the Second World War. There’s not a lot of people around who can testify about what actually went on in that time. They’re all passed. This film in some ways is erecting those memories in another way.”

Occupied City was filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic and McQueen shot a total of 36 hours over the course of three years, according to AFP.

“You try to hold onto things but they always slip away. It’s like this film. After four hours and 22 minutes, it’s done,” he said to the AP. “What I want this film to be is almost like tossing a stone into a pond. The ripple effects afterwards, how it enters the viewer’s everyday life, that’s what I hope for.”

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