The Purgatory of History: Steve McQueen's "Occupied City"

The artist makes the past present by combining facts about WWII-era atrocities and resistance in Amsterdam with recent footage of the city.
Corey Atad

Occupied City (Steve McQueen, 2023).

At one point in Steve McQueen’s new documentary, Occupied City, the director sends his camera touring through the halls of a school in present-day Amsterdam as voice-over narration describes it having been the temporary site of an SS headquarters during the Nazi occupation. For just a moment it feels as though all of history has collapsed into itself. To see images of a building dedicated to the enrichment of children while hearing of its one-time appropriation for such monstrosity demands reckoning with the meaning even benign living spaces might hold. Occupied City is filled with such moments of dark revelation born of unthinkable contrasts: an apartment building that was home to the Dutch resistance, a grand theater used as a processing center for Jewish deportation, a now-bustling sidewalk by the river where three resistance members were publicly executed. In the long history of Amsterdam, the occupation, though seismic in impact, was essentially a blip in time, not unlike the first years of the COVID pandemic, during which McQueen’s movie was filmed. Within the framework of the film, both periods exist at once, in parallel, occupying the same cinematic space, interacting with and reverberating against each other. The city of Amsterdam becomes a vessel within which meaning is accrued via occupation, in every sense of the word. It is the people inside the frame and outside of it who tell the story.

In 1997, McQueen made waves with what has become one of his most iconic works as an installation artist. Deadpan is, like Occupied City, a work about space and the people who occupy it. In it, McQueen takes the place of Buster Keaton in a recreation of the famous stunt from Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) in which the side of a house falls around the silent star. Unlike the scene in the Keaton film, the stunt is viewed multiple times, from multiple angles, and played without any hint of comedy. Standing stoically, in contrast to Keaton’s haplessness, McQueen embodies a questioning of and response to the racism embedded in cinema history, with each repetition of the stunt increasing its air of confrontation over the spaces Black people have been allowed to occupy onscreen and beyond. As the video proceeds, its dialogue with that history seems to expand and expand. “He may be inviting us to give in to a temptation to privilege the social and documentary role of black art, but is also presenting us with a gag and a compelling study in purgatory,” wrote Andrew Gellatly of Deadpan for Frieze in 1999.

Studies in purgatory typify McQueen’s work as an artist and filmmaker. His feature debut, 2008’s Hunger, tells the story of Irish republican Bobby Sands and the IRA prison hunger strike. Told in three distinct sections, the film begins with the drama of the inmates’ prior dirty protest, which renders the halls of a prison into a gallery of human excrement, both figuratively and literally. McQueen lingers on the violence toward the inmates by the guards, as well as the feces-covered walls that resemble abstract painting. It is a purgatory from which Sands seeks to escape and conquer, his reasoning given voice in a heady conversation between him and a priest shot in a bravura 17-minute take. The final act of the film is a harrowing and beautiful depiction of Sands’s hunger strike, his body withering away as his soul finds its way out of imprisonment, toward martyrdom.

Deadpan (Steve McQueen, 1997).

At nearly four hours and thirty minutes, Occupied City widens its scope considerably, devoting its ample running time to documenting a whole city across two deeply consequential time periods. Based on the book Atlas of an Occupied City, Amsterdam 1940-1945 by filmmaker and historian Bianca Stigter, the documentary splits the difference between McQueen’s mainstream film work and his installation art. It is composed entirely of 35mm footage captured over the course of the pandemic shutdown and reopening, with narration drawn from the text of Stigter’s book, describing what occurred during the Nazi occupation in each filmed location. It’s the kind of work one might imagine displayed on a screen at an exhibition, with people coming in and out at their leisure, watching it in chunks. Only McQueen has chosen to make cinema his venue, crafting a real sense of continuity that demands a single sitting, beginning to end, intermission included. It would be one thing to watch 10 minutes and get a view of two or three locations, but hundreds of locations over such a long duration overwhelms.

The effect of the film’s dissonant conceit, combining past and present, is by turns eerie and moving. One scene might show a family living in an apartment as the narrator, Melanie Hyams, describes how that apartment belonged to a Jewish family who were sent to a concentration camp and killed. Another might show a city square once used for public executions and fascist demonstrations that is now the site of mass marches for climate justice. While it’s not always clear exactly when each and every piece of footage was captured, the film mostly moves forward in time, through the experience of the pandemic, from early scenes of depopulated streets, to the return of public life. The story told in the narration, meanwhile, is constantly doubling back on itself to describe events that might have occurred in 1943, 1941, or 1945, as though the past is caught in limbo. It is the inherent purgatory of history made manifest, with redemption found only in its relationship to the present.

Such a view of history is, on some level, obvious. But McQueen makes it evident through the film’s very form. Stigter, who is also McQueen’s partner, recently directed the documentary Three Minutes: A Lengthening (2021), in which three minutes of home movie footage from a prewar Jewish community in Poland are examined and re-examined at an almost forensic level to identify the people and places it captured. The two works, Three Minutes and Occupied City, complement each other well. Each uses the form of cinema, and particularly its ability to manipulate time and space, as a means to make history feel present, to rescue memories that might otherwise be lost to humanity’s endless forward march.

Even when not dealing with history directly, McQueen is often interested in collapsing past and present, with an intense focus on people. For his 2014 video installation “Ashes,” the artist repurposed old 8mm footage from his 2002 project “Caribs’ Leap.” In it, a young fisherman from Grenada nicknamed Ashes sits on an orange boat, enjoying the sun and the waves. The blissful scene is recontextualized by an audio recording of two of Ashes's friends, who talk about how, just a few years after this footage was taken, he was murdered over a stash of drugs he found on a beach. Where the absence of historical footage in Occupied City turns the past into purgatory, “Ashes” works in almost the opposite way. The old footage of Ashes astride the bow of his boat makes the past into a site of refuge, deliberately at odds with the cruelty of a present in which he is but a memory to the people who knew him. “They shot him in the hand for him to let go of what he was holding,” one of his friends remembers. “And when they shoot him in the hand, he let go. But he tried to run and then they shoot him in the back and when he fell one of them guys went over to him and shoot him up around his belly and his legs and thing. And that was about it.” McQueen offers no advice for reconciling these two visions of Ashes, but as the young man and the camera sway with the waves, a space of evident joy, the viewer can’t help but feel the grand sweep of a life, even one cut short.

Occupied City’s collapsing of past and present also places it in conversation with another important work of World War II history onscreen: Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), which tells the story of the Holocaust without the use of archival footage. Lanzmann employs a variety of other techniques in his effort, such as asking survivors of death camps to recall their experiences while walking around the ruins of those very camps. The sites, in some cases full of overgrowth, in other cases better preserved or replaced by memorials to the dead, feel haunted in the true sense. Memories of apocalyptic inhumanity come to the surface and any given space is rendered anything but neutral. As history is made to intrude on the present, its ghosts speak; they interrogate. We are forced to comprehend all of that old calamity as intrinsically entwined with the empty spaces in which it happened. So too in Occupied City, whose most unsettling moments come when the camera is trained on some building or empty lot, and after the narrator describes what once existed there, she concludes simply: “Demolished.”

Occupied City (Steve McQueen, 2023).

Occupied City operates against demolition and destruction. If the Nazi occupation was like a purgatory for Amsterdam—and something much worse for its over 75,000 Jewish residents, of whom only about 20 percent survived—and if time itself is a kind of purgatory, the work of history—through testimony and research and artwork—is an act of liberation. Twelve Years a Slave, McQueen’s Best Picture–winning 2012 feature, was literally about the liberation of a man from the bondage of American slavery. Its narrative, drawn from an abolitionist text meant to win over the hearts of white people, is about the terrors of that nightmarish institution. But in form, McQueen investigates slavery as a means of erasure: an erasure of culture, an erasure of individuality, an erasure of human spirit and dignity. When Solomon Northrop (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is left to hang by the neck for several minutes before being cut down, McQueen holds on it in one long take, letting the audience sit with torture, and with what it looks like to see a human being reduced to his physiological responses. His very interiority is a site of destruction, which makes all the more powerful the film’s final scene, in which Northrop returns to his family after more than a decade and his first words are, “I apologize for my appearance, but I’ve had a difficult time these past several years.”

It is with that same perspective that McQueen produced his anthology series Small Axe (2020), comprising five separate films spanning the 1960s to 1980s which tell the stories of the Windrush generation of West Indian immigrants in the United Kingdom. They are stories of a place and the people in it, living rich lives amid the racism of British society, engaging in activism, challenging systems, and throwing house parties. Each film in the series is a testament to the history of those people, and a reclamation of their place in British society, and in filmmaking. Writing about the anthology for Vulture, Angelica Jade Bastién said the films “represent the beauty of cinema as a form, not just in what it can reflect about the Black experience but the rapture that comes when we bare our souls enough to connect to the world around us.” With its vivid portraits of Black life in Britain, Small Axe resurrects vital history, enlivening it with the dignity and complexity that has often been obscured and ignored by the wider society.

In 2022, McQueen debuted the installation work “Sunshine State.” At heart an oral history, the filmmaker’s voice-over relates his father’s memories as an orange picker in ’50s Florida over dual screens showing manipulated footage from 1927’s The Jazz Singer—the original talkie, with its notorious use of blackface—spliced with images of a blazing sun. On one screen, the Jazz Singer footage is presented normally, while on the second screen it is presented in photonegative. At the same time, on each screen, the actors' faces sometimes appear, but are sometimes digitally erased. Like “Deadpan” 25 years earlier, “Sunshine State” re-contextualizes the history of cinema, deconstructing it and connecting it back to the experiences of those frequently marginalized and memory-holed. In McQueen’s work, people and stories trapped in the amber of history and celluloid are freed by reconfiguration and presentation. It is cinema as purgatory and salvation simultaneously.

Such is the duality of Occupied City. Amsterdam was liberated from the Nazi occupation on May 5, 1945. The last remaining COVID restrictions in the Netherlands were lifted in March 2022. Life moves on, people move forward, the present becomes history. But in smashing the two periods together, in displaying the present while narrating the past, McQueen pulls the past out of history’s purgatory, exposing the life of a city as the iterative creation of the people who occupy it. As an artist, McQueen is canny enough to let the audience sit with the dissonances that this juxtaposition creates, to encourage us to draw our own revelations from the images of empty streets, memorial services, Zoom wedding ceremonies, anti-vaccine riots, and children sledding down snowy hills, along with concurrent descriptions of WWII-era atrocities and resistance. It is only at the end that McQueen tips his hopeful hand, presenting a modern bar mitzvah service for the child of a racially mixed family. Where once there was pain, there can also be communion.

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