What if the locations of our most comforting sojourns (museums, ice cream parlors, parks) were also uncovered to be the sites of atrocity and anguish in the past? That is the central conceit of A24’s “Occupied City,” Oscar-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen’s stirring, enveloping four-and-a-half-hour nonfiction film (releasing on Dec. 25). The project is informed by his spouse Bianca Stigter’s (“Three Minutes: A Lengthening”) book “Atlas of an Occupied City, Amsterdam 1940-1945.”
The “12 Years a Slave” and “Hunger” director turns his camera to modern-day Amsterdam to recount the Nazi occupation of the region during World War II. It’s told exclusively in captured footage of modern everyday Amsterdammers— largely seen during the early COVID pandemic — as a narrator (Melanie Hyams) recounts the fates of dozens of inhabitants whose lives were destroyed by barbarism in the exact spots the stories depict.
The duo joined TheWrap over Zoom to discuss the impulse to create this massive tone poem.
You both work within many different art forms, but Steve, what about the documentary format appealed to you especially for “Occupied City”?
STEVE McQUEEN: I didn’t even know I was making a documentary, to be quite honest. I was just sort of working with a camera, working with the tools of filmmaking, to look at a particular time in history. So, I didn’t worry about what it could be. I’m more interested in what one can do with the tools of film, which is much more exciting for me.
Let’s talk about how you decided on Melanie Hyams to narrate. It was extremely effective to have a rather even-keel, soothing voice that you don’t quite recognize taking you through these harrowing experiences.
BIANCA STIGTER: I wrote the book, and we wrote a text for the film, but we very much let the facts speak for themselves, and then anything the viewer wants to do with that is up to them. So, we made it as open and transparent as possible. And I think you need a voice that doesn’t speak from a position of authority. You don’t want to give your audience the feeling of, “Hey, you should know this.”
McQUEEN: Melanie delivers it as she discovers it, which is key. And also, there are stories and tales which are extremely tragic, but at the same time are delivered with a voice which is of the now, of the future, so there is an optimism to it as well.
The film is four-and-a-half hours and excitingly will get a theatrical release. It absolutely had to be this length to absorb its cumulative effect. And I love that it has an intermission, which highlights that unique group-felt experience.
STIGTER: It needs these kinds of legs because of the subject matter. You couldn’t deal with it in one-and-a-half hours, that would just be impossible. And if anything, being within it needs to be an experience instead of a history lesson. The film also makes you very aware that, even though you kept all this information, this is not the end. That this is not enough, it could go on and on and on.
McQUEEN: We embraced that as part of the work. You step out, go to the bathroom or you have a coffee or whatever, and then you’re back in, so that even becomes part of the experience of the film. I liked very much what Bianca said — that this is not a history lesson, this is a meditation. So, to come out of it and to come back in is part of the experience of the film, which I love.
There is evidently a 36-hour cut of this film, as you filmed every part of the book. How and where will people be able to see this version?
McQUEEN: It’s going to be much more structural, but you’ll see why I can’t really talk about it until it’s done.
This story first appeared in the SAG Preview/Documentary issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.