Life Goes On... But Not Quite


Occupied City directed by Steve McQueen

I've spent more time in Amsterdam than any other city in Europe. I've performed there at least 100 times since Nov. 1980, when I first stepped on the stage with Captain Beefheart at the Paradiso Amsterdam. Most recently, I performed there on Dec. 7th at the Bimhuis with Peter Willems. I always love playing in Holland. Dutch audiences are tremendously loyal and passionate -- and very much so in Amsterdam.

For years, I made the city my base as I fanned out touring across Europe and spent weeks, sometimes months at a time, between shows. And I have many old friends and supporters still living there.

So I thought I knew this city like the back of my hand -- until I saw this 4-hour film (which thankfully contains a much-needed 15-minute intermission). 

The film is a revelation and an eye-opener, revealing hitherto hidden details about Amsterdam under Nazi occupation. It touches on some of the same ground previously treaded by Paul Verhoeven's powerful Black Book (2006), but it comes to you via a very different cinematic delivery system. Black Book was a thriller and a melodrama, if not a horror show. It chilled you -- but you knew you were watching a movie after all (and a very good one). 

On the other hand, Occupied City is a 4-hour film -- and a 4-hour history lesson. I've not seen anything quite like it before. It's a documentary leavened with sweeping contemporary cinematography and music that lifts it far beyond mere documentary into a rarefied cinematic universe. Four hours spent in the dark of the cinema with this unusual film will provide you with an excellent education and a new perspective on events past, present, and future for those of you suffering from Holocaust fatigue. 

Basically, director Steve McQueen and his wife, Dutch filmmaker and historian Bianca Stigter, have made a darkly poetic documentary that utilizes only contemporary footage of the city, some of it drop-dead gorgeous -- it's hard not to love Amsterdam for its scenic wonderment alone -- juxtaposed with a relentless litany of atrocities committed by the Nazis against the Amsterdam Jewish community for 5 long years during the war. This method is reminiscent of the heart of Roberto Bolano's experimental novel 2666, which, midway through in "The Part About the Crimes" section, turns into a staggering true-crime police blotter report describing in gruesome detail every rape and murder committed against 112 female victims in Santa Teresa (a stand-in for Ciudad Juarez). 

The descriptions of Nazi atrocities here in this film are not limned in such in-your-face detail. Still, as they stack up one after another, they radiate an aura of overwhelming gravitas, a profound sadness. The faceless female voice on the soundtrack reads out a short history of each crime with all the names, dates, and addresses provided -- THIS is what happened, and THERE is where it took place -- while the film shows you, or attempts to show you, the actual locations today where these crimes were committed (in many cases, the buildings have long since been demolished). A cinematic cognitive dissonance occurs as shots of calm, sometimes joyful quotidian life in Amsterdam today are counterposed with this hypnotically comprehensive aural recitation delineating the unspeakable events that stalked the same city for 5 years. As the film proceeds over its exhausting and exhilarating 4 hours, the filmmakers' vision gathers force by sheer accretion of the numerous horrors illuminated to eventually seize the imagination and (almost) sweep away the relatively tranquil reality of Amsterdam today like an unstoppable tidal wave. Real specters still haunt Amsterdam, and they are palpable in the breathtaking night shots as the camera swoops over the cityscape and in closeups of ghostly churning windmill blades set against the deep blue skies.

Ultimately, the bustling, lively normality of contemporary Amsterdam attests to the vanquishing of the Nazi horrors inflicted on its Jewish populace during the war years. Life goes on...but not quite. Occasionally McQueen sets up shots that seemingly comment on the Nazi terror of the early 1940s with sequences revealing contemporary Dutch problems (political resistance to the influx of migrants and illegal immigrants, resistance to the mandatory COVID-19 lockdown, which didn't take effect in Holland till the fall of 2020) which almost ironically rhyme or comment on with what the voice on the soundtrack is describing. And this makes the film so artful -- virtually a psychogeographic excavation of the soul of a great city. Were those Nazi dominated-days really such "Different Times" in relation to the Present -- or is Fate once again knocking on the door in another guise that we can only barely make out now? A fantastic achievement, this film. 

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