The plurality, and banality of horror
Any time I write about director Steve McQueen’s visual creations, I feel obligated to comment on the fact that his 2008 film Hunger, made me have one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had while watching basically, anything.
I left the cinema in central London, slowly emerging from the darkness of the screening, and inhumanity itself, into a bright sunny day. Life defiantly, buzzed enthusiastically around me, despite having just watched slow protracted dehumanisation, cruelty and death. I knew I couldn’t take my usual route home, for fear I bumped into anyone I knew, knowing I would instantly burst into floods of tears. So I spent over an hour walking home, just to try and settle myself. I would never doubt this artist’s ability to present and tell stories about humanity, nor inhumanity.
The context of when you see a film for the first time, also has a pivotal influence on your overall experience, your absorption, interpretation and understanding. Settling down to watch McQueen’s new behemoth (at nearly 5hrs) documentary Occupied City (2023), a horrific study and relentless reminder of the systematic atrocities trust upon Jews in the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam in World War II, was happening on the very same day that South Africa were rightly starting a trial in the Hague, for the Israeli government’s clear ongoing policy of genocide against the people of Palestine. So as each tale of tragedy was read out, the sufferings of the Jews in 1940s Amsterdam, was in absolute parallel to current Palestine. The cycle of abuse writ large.
As I said, I will never doubt McQueen’s ability, and it is not for me to tell a fellow creative how to do anything, I can only give recall to how I responded during the viewing, and to be honest, I’m not really sure.
It’s the next morning, and I still can’t settle my mind, but maybe that’s the objective of the work.
Inspired by his wife Bianca Stigter’s (historian/film maker from Amsterdam) book Atlas of an Occupied City (Amsterdam 1940-1945), a rigorous study and compendium of the brutal slow creep of the fascist Nazi ideology into the lives of the Dutch (the local Nazi party had significant support prior to the war), occupation, capitulation, active support of the Nazis by many, mechanised imprisoning, annihilation, and thankfully defiance (where Dutch resistance were labelled terrorists). This information is presented in a monotone voice over by actress Melanie Hyams, against the backdrop of footage McQueen shot in Amsterdam during the first pandemic lockdowns.
Save for possibly a single passing memorial site photo, there are no images, footage or recordings from the occupied era, as we visit 130 addresses, and their inhabitants, in their 2020s form, where there are detailed reports of the survival, sufferings and deaths of countless Jews. The walls would not merely be talking, but screaming in pain.
It’s a fascinating, disorienting, deeply upsetting, horrifying, and at times infuriating sensation beholding this seemingly infinite list, passing by like endless train carriages to death camps. As the reports are impassively read out, we see the modern folk of Amsterdam go about their everyday lives, seemingly unaware to the torture and suffering that is literally seeped into the bricks and canals around them. We see the buildings, or empty spaces where once was orchestrated death (up to 80% of Dutch Jews were murdered), or completely random ‘normal’ life happenings, or more realistically, the monotony of everyday life continues on obviously. A brutal and no doubt deliberate decision.
Sometimes the words and image seem to intertwine, certainly in the apparent parallels in draconian covid measures instigated by Dutch authorities, their militarised police force, marching in alongside an enormous water cannon tank, towards gatherings that question the polices, and centres where once Jews were gathered for deportation to death camps, and now senior citizens fearfully gather for vaccination.
Mostly there doesn’t seem to be overt correlations between words and image (unless I was oblivious to some deeper meaning), which creates a cognitive dissonance, where you zone out of the information, absorbing the image, and are jolted back to the cruel content of what’s being spoken. Or, you have to almost fight the distraction of the image, as the brutality of the information hooks in again. Is that a commentary on how quickly people can switch off to the suffering of others? It seems to be the case by many in regards to Palestine.
McQueen won the Turner in 1999, and this documentary feels like a return to those earlier works, more an installation, than a standard documentary. There are pros and cons to that, especially in regards to who will put in the effort to watch it, as it’s a huge ask. Again, maybe that in itself is a commentary on the modern world, people’s ability to stick to the ‘I’m alright Jack’ mentality, as long as the suffering is kept away from me, I don’t care. But as is shown in endless and weekly protests all around the world about the murder of Palestinian children, people do care.
I’ve mentioned it in other reviews where appropriate. I worked in Munich during the summers of my student years. A bunch of us went to Dachau (a concentration camp in operation for 12 years), as there is a memorial site there. I will never forget what I saw, nor should I, no one should ever be allowed to forget. It’s often said that those that ignore history, will only repeat it. That’s evidently not the truth, they are clearly indifferently ignoring it, and as with all atrocities, utilising it, as it’s only bestowed on the innocent by governments.
After visiting the site, we went into the town, where there was a festival on, life continued on, regardless of horrors that once happened close by. I was in awe and admiration of the German people to recognise what a lot of their fellow countrymen did, to acknowledge it, actively warning it should never be allowed to happen again. A lesson the colonial US, UK and Israel deliberately ignore.
To return to the documentary, I’m at odds with the format, the overwhelming amount of information (endless words of unforgivable inhumanity, that directly mimic current speeches by Netanyahu’s party members), and especially the duration (266 mins including 15 mins intermission). There is potential for the aspect of gate keeping, the very vastness of the piece, though highly understandable and commendable, is a tiny fraction of the overall tragedy, possibly turning off the very people who should see it, ie EVERYONE.
I did however feel, having got through the first half, with the interval to digest, and converse with others as to what we were witnessing, absolutely made for a more fluid second half, confusion subsided, as I sort of came to terms with it all. Again, that’s no doubt by design.
Unless the ultimate end goal for the film is to reside online, on an infinite loop, where it can be viewed for free, so people can learn what others, and ourselves are capable of, this work is probably sadly destined to be seen by only a tiny percentage of what it deserves. That would be a disservice to the memories to the tens of thousands who lost their lives, and for the horrors that are happening as I write this.
Occupied City is on release in the UK and Ireland by Modern Films on 9th February 2023.
There will be a special event screening on Sunday 11th February, including a live Q&A with McQueen and Stigter, to be broadcast from the Barbican, to cinemas nationwide. Visit www.modernfilms.com/occupiedcity for up to date information.