The title of Steve McQueen’s latest feature, Occupied City, refers to Amsterdam and its occupation by the Nazis during the Second World War. The director worked with his wife Bianca Stigter, who produced the film alongside McQueen and wrote the 2019 book Atlas of an Occupied City, Amsterdam 1940-1945 – an extraordinary piece of research in which the Amsterdam native presented biographical details of the residents of more than 2,000 buildings in the city and what happened to them in the war.
In the film, narrator Melanie Hyams calmly describes what happened to the people in 130 buildings over 4 hours and 22 minutes while real-life footage of Amsterdam shot between 2019 and 2022 appears on screen. There also exists a 36-hour version of the film that may appear in another form (such as in a museum or gallery), which McQueen is currently “working on how to construct”.
Many of the short descriptions are heartbreaking – some 60,000 Jewish people living in Amsterdam were killed during the war, with many murdered in concentration camps. But there are moments of hope, with present-day scenes of pandemic-era Amsterdam occasionally still and meditative, at times energetic and truly alive.
Stigter and McQueen sat down on the day of Occupied City’s British premiere at the BFI London Film Festival to discuss the film, how David Bowie ended up on the soundtrack, and their changing feelings about the city they live in.
Bianca, why did you choose to focus on this specific part of Amsterdam’s history for the book?
Stigter: It was the most significant, most unhappy subject in recent history that was all around me, except that I couldn’t really see it. I thought, “Let’s try to make a time-machine guidebook to this past.” There’s always a few things that people do remember and know – Anne Frank’s house or something like that. It’s where the perpetrators were that gets forgotten the easiest.
Steve, what was it about the book that made you think it might lend itself to a screen adaptation?
McQueen: The book didn’t come first. It was just an idea. I was working on something where I was interested in finding footage from the past and projecting new footage from now on to it, meaning that it will sort of double. You’ve got the living and the dead in one frame. That’s what I was interested in, but then Bianca was writing a book – I thought maybe the past is text and the present is actually now, so that could be a better combination in the film.
In the film, we see protests against the restrictions of Covid lockdowns in Amsterdam. Were you attempting to echo the much more severe restrictions of the occupation?
McQueen: We couldn’t predict Covid would happen. The film was going ahead anyway. When you’re shooting something in the world as it is, it’s like it’s raining but at least you could change the colour of your raincoat – meaning that it is what it is.
It’s not about illustrating what you see, it’s about reflecting on what you see. It is not about being naive to it, but it is accepting the world as what it is. Beautiful, ugly, wonderful, dark.
What are the disadvantages of working with one’s partner?
McQueen: That you talk about work all the fucking time – [except] “What’s for dinner?” I think we get away with it because we talk about so many different things. We’d switch off and switch on. But actually it was wonderful and it continues to be. I’m very, very fortunate and very happy that we could work together. I equated it to Elton [John] and Bernie [Taupin]. She had the lyrics, I had the music, and that was it. So let’s put them together.
Stigter: The project happened naturally. It wasn’t, “Oh, let’s make something together because that would be so nice.” It was, “OK, I want to make this film. You have this book. It would be stupid not to use it.”
Speaking of music, using David Bowie’s ‘Golden Years’ were you saying it’s ‘golden years’ because we see the older people getting their Covid jabs?
McQueen: With the 70s Bowie, there’s a certain kind of nostalgia with that persona. I wanted to do something which was popular and nostalgic at that moment, not just nostalgic for the old people but to give it as a context.
Did you come across many surprises when you were researching?
Stigter: There are loads of stories that are unexpected in all kinds of different ways, but I was always happy if I could tell a story – if it was more than, “These people were born and then they died or they were murdered and that is all I can uncover.” That was the difficult part – if I couldn’t find anything to make these people not be forgotten. That was, to me, important, to show them as individuals instead of a number.
McQueen: It wasn’t about a spectacle, it was about people’s lives, and that was the most important thing.
Steve, what is it about documentaries as a form that appeals to you?
McQueen: It’s just about the subject matter and using film to illustrate it. I wasn’t interested in the form. I didn’t know what I was making or how it was going to be made. It was just: this is a good approach to attempt to capture this particular place in time. I didn’t know if it was a documentary. I didn’t know if it was fiction. I didn’t know what it was, but I just wanted to use a camera and illustrate it. The fact that people want to call it a documentary, well, OK.
Were there any particular difficulties that came up in the editing process that were different from a normal piece of work you make?
McQueen: The concentration, because the focus had to be of high quality all the way through. With the subject matter but also the amount of material, it was an endurance test, really.
Did your feelings about Amsterdam change as you made the film?
McQueen: I can’t ever see it again the way I saw it before, but at the same time it’s a really joyous city. It gave me more appreciation of the city and its survival.
Stigter: There are more layers to my feelings now. It’s like you have a history with a person. You don’t only think this person is fantastic: you are irritated by some things and pity others. There’s a whole layer of portraits there, and that’s something I’m very aware of when I walk or cycle through town.
Near the end you focus on a little girl outside the train station, which felt like a hopeful moment among the many tales of sadness in the film.
McQueen: The Ukrainian girl. Also, with the child at the end of the picture having his bar mitzvah. It’s about the future. The narrator is also a young person who didn’t live in that time. There’s an optimism there, absolutely. Even within this sort of film, there’s a bit of optimism.
Occupied City screened at the 67th BFI London Film Festival.
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