Review: ‘Occupied City,’ a historical documentary of Nazi-controlled Amsterdam, narrated by Melanie Hyams

January 11, 2023

by Carla Hay

A street procession in “Occupied City” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Occupied City”

Directed by Steve McQueen

Culture Representation: Filmed in Amsterdam, in 2020 and 2021, the documentary film “Occupied City” features a predominantly white group of people (with some black people and Asians) of various social classes in cinéma vérité footage.

Culture Clash: The documentary visits locations and tells (through a narrator) what each location was like in Nazi-controlled Amsterdam from 1940 to 1945, to contrast with what the location looked like at the time the documentary was filmed in the early 2020s. 

Culture Audience: “Occupied City” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in Holocaust-themed documentaries, but viewers will either like or dislike the bloated runtime and the movie’s bland textbook style.

A family at a bar mitzvah ceremony in “Occupied City” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Occupied City” is tedious and repetitive, due to this documentary’s excessively long runtime (nearly 4.5 hours) and pretentiousness. It’s like being stuck in a rambling academic lecture with travelogue visuals. It’s also an endurance test to stay awake. Most people who watch this entire movie probably won’t remember many of the overload of facts that this movie soullessly spews out like an artificial-intelligence machine on autopilot. It’s why the total runtime of “Occupied City” is not justified at all, because most of the movie will be quickly forgotten because of its mind-numbing monotony.

Directed by Steve McQueen, “Occupied City” is based on Bianca Stigter’s 2019 non-fiction book “Atlas of an Occupied City (Amsterdam 1940-1945),” a location guide to historical locations of Amsterdam when the city was controlled by Nazis. McQueen and Stigter, who are romantic partners in real life, are two of the producers of “Occupied City,” which had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. The movie is like the cinematic version of an oversized atlas with narration that sounds like it’s from a very stodgy textbook. No one in the 2020s footage is interviewed. Everyone who’s seen talking in the movie is not identified at all.

The problem with “Occupied City” is it looks like the filmmakers decided to just film the locations and have a narrator read excerpts from Stigter’s book, with no further insights that a great documentary would have. The movie also shows some footage without narration that looks like something a tourist would film when the tourist doesn’t know what to film. It looks like extraneous footage that director McQueen couldn’t bear to edit out of a documentary that desperately needed better film editing to keep viewers fully engaged.

The narrator for “Occupied City” is actress Melanie Hyams, who has the plodding task of reading factoids about the approximately 130 locations shown in “Occupied City.” Hyams, who is British, reads the script in a tone that is borderline robotic. Most people who know World War II history also know about the horrors of the Holocaust, but the way that these facts are delivered in “Occupied City” really diminish the impact of this history. The visuals focus on mundane life in Amsterdam, while the real people who suffered during the Holocaust are reduced to detached and dull sentences recited in narration.

Want to know where was the first Amsterdam pub that was supposedly the first in the city to ban Jewish people? “Occupied City” will show you that where the pub used to be is now a non-descript G-Star office or factory, which the documentary filmed from the outside. In the narration, Hyams says a few things about the antisemitic rules posted in the pub. And then concludes the short summary of the location by saying what happened to this antisemitic pub: “demolished.” (Expect to hear the word “demolished” a lot in this documentary.)

“Occupied City” gives very brief summaries of some of the atrocities that took place in each location during any year between 1940 to 1945. Whether it’s the Rijksmuseum, a kindergarten classroom, or a brothel in the 2020s, the documentary will tell viewers what types of Nazi-related activities took place in those locations during those Nazi-controlled 1940s years. Because there is no archival footage in “Occupied City,” there are no “before” and “after” photos or images of these locations. And that deliberate omission isn’t necessarily a flaw.

But what’s missing from “Occupied City” is any real effort to get viewers to remember the human stories of the people who were part of this history. Their photos are never shown. Their descendants are not interviewed. Instead, viewers who watch “Occupied City” are more likely to remember how much the documentary shows lingering footage of how Amsterdam was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, or footage of left-wing political rallies where people rant against fascism and environmental corruption.

And really, it isn’t all that surprising when “Occupied City” tells you that the current town squares in Amsterdam that existed during the Nazi occupation were used for Nazi rallies back then. It isn’t shocking that many of the houses where Amsterdam residents currently live used to be the houses of Nazi officials or persecuted Jewish people. But these are the types of facts that “Occupied City” repeats over and over, as if it’s uncovering groundbreaking information. Ironically, the National Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam is given only a few short minutes in “Occupied City,” probably because the museum is so much more informative than this puffed-up documentary that thinks it’s more important than it really is.

The obvious intention of “Occupied City” is to show how life has continued in Amsterdam, with many people seemingly blissfully unaware that the very spaces they are enjoying are the same spaces where brutal antisemitism and other evil bigotry occurred. For example, there’s a fairly long scene filmed during an unknown month in a 2020s winter, showing children and their families ice sledding in an outdoor space where Jewish people used to be rounded up and abused by Nazis. Another example is the documentary showing two women having a love partnership ceremony at the same location where there used to be a Jewish bookstore whose books were destroyed by Nazis.

But when “Occupied City” shows these “everyday happy life” scenes with narration of dark and depressing Holocaust facts, it’s with the unspoken and condescending tone that maybe these people being filmed don’t know or don’t care about these facts. But because “Occupied City” doesn’t bother to interview anyone for this documentary, the fact is that viewers just don’t know how much history about Nazi-occupied Amsterdam is known or cared about by the people being filmed. The movie ends in a very predictable way: by showing an interracial family whose son is having a bar mitzvah ceremony, which is the type of footage that Nazis would hate.

“Occupied City” is a long-winded documentary about locations and random footage of anonymous people in those locations, not a well-rounded story about people (past and present) who are part of the history that this documentary attempts to tell. Stigter’s Holocaust-themed 2022 documentary “Three Minutes—A Lengthening” (whose centerpiece was long-lost, three-minute footage of Polish residents in 1938) made the most of out of this short footage to create a meaningful feature-length documentary. Unfortunately, “Occupied City” does the opposite: It does very little with the overabundance of location footage in this overstuffed documentary that drains the humanity from the people affected by this very human history.

A24 released “Occupied City” in select U.S. cinemas on December 25, 2023.

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