Both heartbreaking and hopeful, Oscar-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen's Occupied City is a collision of the ghosts of Amsterdam's past and the reality of the city's present. The four-hour documentary is based on Atlas of an Occupied City: Amsterdam 1940-1945, a historical encyclopedia written by McQueen's wife, the historian and filmmaker Bianca Stigter.
"Bianca had written this extraordinary book, and it's all her research over the last 20 years or more. She'd done her part," explains the director. "My part was to make the film. It's not the first book you'd ever think we'd translate into a movie. It's not an obvious choice."
Stigter, who is a producer on the film, says for her part, "When Steve told me the idea for the first time, I thought it could be a very new and different but very promising way to tell people something about the city's history. I was immediately very taken by it."
Using the text of Atlas of an Occupied City as narration, McQueen (who won Best Picture with 2013's 12 Years a Slave) explores the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam during World War II. The film juxtaposes the history of the city with footage of life in Amsterdam today, which he shot over the course of several years beginning in 2019 and through the pandemic lockdowns. Of note, Occupied City marks McQueen's first feature documentary.
"All narrative film, all feature film, all documentary, is of a type. Occupied City happens to be classified as a documentary," McQueen tells A.frame. "For me, it's a case of where we were, how far we've come, and how far we need to go. That's what this film documents. In 10 years, there'll be a little dust on it; in 20 years there will be a lot more dust on it, but then, we can measure ourselves from this moment on."
Stigter adds, "It's essential to have ways to bring history to the fore. We have documentaries, books, and feature films, and this is trying to tell you things about the past in a different way, which is, for me, a very valid way. That's also why the length is important. It turns it more into a meditation or an experience than a history lesson."
A.Frame: This is a unique approach to bringing Bianca's book to the screen. How and why did you decide this was the best way to adapt this?
Steve McQueen: I have always felt that, as an artist, you don't have to go to a far-flung country to work on something. It could be your doorstep, and this was one of those things that affected me personally. The reason I came to Amsterdam to live was because of Bianca. We have two kids, it's where they went to school, and in fact, my daughter's school was once an interrogation center. Where my son went to school was a Jewish school, so these things were in my every day. When it's sinking into your pores, you start thinking about it. Coming from London, not having grown up in an occupied city but being here now, it felt like I was living with ghosts. Amsterdam is a 17th-century city. It's almost like an archeological dig. This is recent history within the last 85 or 90 years, and I thought this could be fascinating. It is two existences: My presence and another presence. Initially, I thought I would find some footage from 1940 to project on top of the present day, but next door, this typing was going on. It was Bianca tapping the keys of her books, and I thought, 'Well, maybe the past is text, the present is obviously the present, and merging the two things together will be it.'
Bianca, did you even envisage Occupied City as a book that would be adapted for the screen in any way?
Bianca Stigter: No, not at all. It was something entirely unexpected. The book is one of the least likely of almost any book to be filmed, but here we are! I don't think anyone else would do it, but Steve had that idea.
When you started discussing the project, did you know what you didn't want the final result to be as much as you knew what you did want it to be?
McQueen: No, not at all.
Stigter: No one knew. Steve had to make it to find out.
So, it was an exploratory process out of the gate?
Stigter: Steve had the vision and the idea that it might work, and I had a very strong idea that it would, but you never know for sure. When I saw the first version, I was immediately very taken by it, because it did all that I had envisioned and much more. It's not a history lesson; it's a kind of experience. It makes you think a lot about all the ways you can link the past and present and the ways you cannot. It's very philosophical for me.
If that first effort at making the movie hadn't worked, was there a Plan B?
McQueen: It's one of those things where it's about exploring, and I have no fear of that. It is about investigating, and I have no fear of that. It is about finding things out, and I do not fear that either. If I had to think of what could work and what might not, I wouldn't do it in the first place. Someone else would've done it. It's about venturing into places where you don't know what will happen but having faith in the process. It's very important. That's art. You have to find it.
Occupied City is four hours long, but I understand there is also a 30-plus hour version.
McQueen: To clarify, there's a feature documentary — this one — and another version, which I'm still working on, and that is the 36-hour sculptural version. [It is] an art piece for an institution. There are 36 hours of edited footage. From that 36 hours of edited footage, we took out these four hours and however many minutes, because making a feature film is a very different experience than making the sculptural element of it. Certain things are repeated in that, but you don't want to do that in a feature film. In some ways, after a particular moment, it condenses itself, and then you decide what you want to keep in and what you want to take out to make it a certain kind of journey.
Melanie Hyams was chosen as the voice to narrate Occupied City. How did she come to get that role?
McQueen: She wasn't going to be. She was originally a temp voice. Xander Nijsten, our editor, introduced Melanie to me, and I thought, 'Okay, we'll put her in and see how it goes.' As time went on, which turned out to be over two and a half years, she sunk into my core. She was extraordinary in the way that she took direction. If there's ever a sense of the delivery being slightly dispassionate, it's there to allow the audience to invest in the emotion rather than someone to manipulate you into it. Also, Melanie is someone of today; she's actually a young Jewish woman of today, so there's this element of hope for not just that community, but for all of us. It's really important.
Stigter: The way she delivers the dialogue is very important to me. It is not a voice of authority. It's not a history teacher telling you, 'This all happened,' wagging a finger as if to say, 'You don't know it, but I do.' It's more that she is one step ahead of the audience by finding out what happened in a particular place and seeing it more as a voyage of discovery than as a history lesson.
There is a matter-of-factness to the tone.
McQueen: It's not matter-of-fact, but it is factual. The emotional response has to come from the audience. She's not a computer. She's a human being, and she's a female human being living today, so while there is the sense of hope I mentioned, she has to say it in a way that isn't dramaticizing the situation, because that would just that wouldn't be right. If overdone with a heavy voice, it would detract from the facts and the emotional impact. We're not avoiding that. In fact, we want to enhance it, but we enhance it by her delivery.
How did you go about matching images to the words? When it came to the locations and so on, was your approach more figurative or literal?
Stigter: This film has a much looser connection between sound and image than you usually have. Sometimes, there's something very obvious that you can connect with that the viewer can try to link to. Our brains are programmed to link what we see and hear together. In this film, you have to find those links yourself. Things happened in the same location, but is there more? That's a lot of work for the audience to engage with.
McQueen: I often think watching a movie is like a religious experience. You're trying to create meaning in what you see. In this case, the more you know, the less you know. How do you make sense of 6 million people being murdered? Well, you can't.
Stigter: We would never replicate this. Sometimes, the actual building where something happened was being discussed was demolished during or after the war. In that case, we would film it in the new building standing at that exact location.
McQueen: Obviously, what's happening in those locations is not necessarily what happened in 1940. A person playing guitar is not someone trying to make counterfeit passports. But again, it was about experimenting, taking risks, and taking chances, because this has never been done like this before. But for me, it was screaming to be done. My involvement was trying to do the right thing with the text.
When you approached these people in these locations in the modern day and explained what you were doing, did they understand the concept and want to be part of it?
McQueen: Of course. Most of the time, in cities, people are a bit gruff, and they're not opening doors to their private locations, but the doors were flung open when we spoke to them about what we were trying to do and how we were trying to do it. It was because of the Second World War. Ninety-five percent of the locations were so welcoming, from workplaces to homes. It was incredible, but it was because of the subject matter.
From a practical and technical point of view, what did it look like when you were filming?
McQueen: What was so beautiful was that we were shooting on 35mm film. It was shooting without a tightrope, in a way. Young people today shoot digitally; they spray the whole area, shooting for 60 hours and cutting it down to half an hour. You can't do that with film. The process of making a film and working with Lennert Hillege, the DP, the sound people, and others, it was a beautiful ritual every time we took the camera. I think that was extremely helpful in capturing things, because everyone was very focused.
Stigter: One of the unique things for me when I watched the film is that even when something not very obviously exciting or interesting is happening, they still manage to make it into something meaningful. That's a very unique ability where you can do that.
McQueen: I suppose what we were trying to do was almost sprinkling flour on these ghosts, on these histories, and illuminating them in the frame so even when you saw something of the present, you saw the past there too.
Speaking of ghosts, the music composed by Oliver Coates is quite haunting.
McQueen: It's actually funny how I discovered his music. I was walking in a clothing store when it came on the speakers, and I said, 'Who is this? What is this?' Thank god my friend who was with me had Shazam, so I asked, 'Who is this person? Is he living or dead? Is this from the '70s or '80s?' She said, 'This guy's called Oliver Coates, and he lives in Glasgow.' It was then that I found out he was a cellist on Paul T. Anderson's movie Phantom Thread for the composer Jonny Greenwood, so I rang him up and said, 'Look, I don't know you, I've never heard of you, but I have to work with you on this picture. Are you interested?' That was it.