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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (2/2/2024)

(Review of Occupied City)


Eleven years after the hideous truth of the Nazi death camps had been revealed, Alain Resnais revisited the abandoned sites at Auschwitz and Majdanek to ponder how such unremarkable plots could have been the site of such despicable carnage. Running 32 minutes and scripted by Mathausen-Gusen survivor, Jean Cayrol, Night and Fog (1956) remains the most potent meditation on the Holocaust and Steve McQueen clearly had it in mind while making Occupied City.

Inspired by Atlas of an Occupied City: Amsterdam 1940-1945 - a 2019 survey of 2000 buildings that was written by McQueen's Dutch historian wife Bianca Stigter, who also directed the excellent 69-minute Three Minutes: A Lengthening (2022) - this epic documentary was largely filmed during the pandemic lockdown. In running for 262 minutes, it seeks to stand alongside such extended masterpieces as Marcel Ophüls's The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) and Claude Lanzmann's Shoah (1985), which respectively ran for 251 and 566 minutes. But, in returning to McQueen's installation phase in order to juxtapose modern-day images of 130 locations with the Stigter text delivered impassively by Melanie Hyams, this treatise on absence as a presence, which doesn't include a single frame of archival footage or second of talking-head testimony, runs the risk of comparison with Peter Greenaway's exploration of a `Violent Unknown Event' in the cod-documentary, The Falls (1980), which itself ran for 195 minutes.

There's little point in attempting to list each of the entries in a litany that reinforces the validity of Hannah Arendt's concept of `the banality of evil'. By all accounts, a 36-hour version exists that would be even more challenging to watch and assess. But certain sequences stand out, including the first, in which a woman descends into a cellar in which Jews once hid in order to fetch some supplies. The sight of children playing and dogs romping on the Museumplein where Heinrich Himmler once inspected troops also leaves its mark, as do the revelations of the Rijksmuseum's role in exhibiting confiscated Jewish artworks and acquiescing in the cult of Rembrandt that was bolstered by a 1942 Hans Steinhoff biopic.

Wartime events at the Concergebouw are related between footage of anti-lockdown protests and the use of mounted police to disperse the crowd. It's not entirely clear what statement McQueen is intending to make here, but the blurred then/now demarcation is disconcerting. Much more impactful is the contrast of footage of a couple's wedding with details of the execution of a nurse who had helped Jewish children escape while working in the hospital that had once stood on the site.

A brief mention of Anne Frank comes over shots of the denture workshop that now occupies what had been her favourite ice cream parlour, Oase on Geleenstraat. We're shown people socialising in a café at the former prison, Huis van Bewaring, and hear the 10 commandments for people in hiding. One third of the 12,000 Amsterdam Jews who went into hiding were caught.

After views of the Amsterdamse Bos and stories about the camps situated there, details of safe houses are relayed over Brueghelesque images of skaters on a frozen canal and sledgers on a slope. The sense of relief at being outside and mingling during the health crisis is palpable and few would have been mindful of the atrocities being outlined in the narration. They would also probably not have known about Eduard Veterman, the playwright who became a wartime forger and was possibly assassinated by collaborators in 1946. The irony that his final play was entitled Things Won't Turn Out the Way You Expect digs deep.

As does the story of how the Jewish Gratitude Memorial became the National Holocaust Names Memorial, which was opened by King Willem-Alexander in 2021. The passage following is less effective, however, as arch drone shots are used to capture the city under Covid curfew over a description of wartime restrictions. Once again, the juxtaposition is disquieting, primarily because its intentions are unclear. The role played by the Vredeskerk peace church is less perplexing, unlike the decision to use David Bowie's `Golden Years' over a montage of old people receiving their anti-Coronavirus jabs.

Following footage of a sparsely attended rally against fascism, we hear about the Hunger Winter and the rail service to the Westerbork transit camp. A description of the arson attack on the civil registry in a bid to nullify the effectiveness of mandatory identity cards contains a mention of Anne Frank's pleasure at the sabotage. But such moments of relief were few and far between, as a series of disclosures about betrayals, confiscations, and wilful destruction affirms. This includes the history of the De Mirandabad swimming pool in Amstel Park.

A visit to a desecrated Jewish cemetery precedes a section on the Jewish Council and whether it protected all Jewish citizens, favoured the elite, or collaborated with the occupiers. This is followed by scenes from a Remembrance Day ceremony and a recollection of the gun battle that broke out on 5 May 1945, when German troops had fired on a crowd celebrating the arrival of a British unit and the end of the war. A 15-minute interval ends the first half of the film.

The second opens on a misty shot of lorries passing over a bridge near where the Nederlands verzet attempted to assassinate notorious collaborationist detective Hendrik Blonk, who survived to be jailed after the war. Shots of rehearsing dancers and exercising pensioners accompany an account of the 1943 mass round-up of over 3000 Jews. A snippet about art forger Han Van Meegeren precedes revelations about the sterilisation of non-Jewish women in mixed marriages by hospital staff who were returned from Westerbrok for the procedures.

We next see a school that has been built on the site of the deportation centre that was used before the operation relocated to the Hollandsche Schouwburg. A glimpse of the former ground of the 1944 Dutch title winners, De Volewijckers, leads into a passage about the 128 Jews who chose suicide in 1940 to living under Nazism.

The home of gay painter Willem Arondeus is our next port of call. He participated in the registry raid and was executed in the dunes with 11 others. Among the many involved in the arts who resided at the Wolkenkrabber building nicknamed `The Skyscraper' was contralto Julia Culp, while neighbour Gerben Sonderman (a pilot who had shot down three Luftwaffe planes during the invasion) hid a radio in an empty apartment to transmit messages to London. Staying in the air, we learn about the USAF and RAF raids on the Fokker factory, while watching bright young things bop at a gallery that had once housed the office for the city's air-raid defences.

More people enjoy themselves in the sunshine on the site of the Weteringschans (Detention Centre 1) on Kleine-Gartmanplantsoen. Jewish prisoners had been made to walk around the courtyard here chanting, `I am a Jew, beat me to death, it's my own fault.' Anne Frank was briefly held here and, as we watch chess games on floor boards, we discover that women who had slept with the Germans had their heads shaved in front of the gates after liberation.

Moving to the Jonas Daniel Meijerplein, we hear about the strike that followed the first razzia round-up in 1941. At Oosterpark, a memorial is being held to honour the African victims of slavery, while a trip to the Stock Exchange reveals a mixed wartime record of handling stolen Jewish treasure to downing tools in the final months of the occupation. There's no hint of guilt here and one wonders how many students at Gerrit van der Veen College know it was the most feared address in Amsterdam during its time as the headquarters of the Sicherheitspolizei. This was bombed by the RAF at the request of the Dutch resistance and the street renamed after partisan artist, Gerrit van der Veen.

Having recorded a pro-Palestinian event in Dam Square, the camera moves on to the demolished site of the City Tree Nursery on the Frankendael Estate, which had been used by the Nationale Jeugdstorm. It lingers near a bridge to watch excited children greet Sinterklaas's boat, as we hear about the fate of the civil registry plotters and the fatalities caused by the blackouts ordered to avoid assisting the RAF. Moving to the Church of Our Lady on Keisersgracht, we learn about the heroic work of banker Walraven van Hall in funding the resistance.

As people exercise in a snowy Sarphatipark, we hear how the Nazis renamed it after a supremacist philosopher and used it as a collection point during the round-up of 5000 Jews. The betrayal of resistance leader Johannes Post by prison guard Jan Boogaard is outlined next before we're informed about the menus at the food kitchens that opened during the Hunger Winter and how tulip bulbs became part of the menu in 1945. `Tea' and `coffee' substitutes were the code names used for the Jewish babies smuggled out of the crèche on Plantage Middenlaan by Henriëtte Pimentel and her staff before it was closed in December 1943.

Opposite was the Hollandsche Schouwburg, which became the city's main deportation centre. Some escaped, but Jew catchers like Wim Heinnecke made a fortune from recapturing around 8000 for a 7.5 guilders reward. Following a poignant slow glide past the memorial wall at the theatre, we head to Vondelpark and learn about an exhibition of toys made by Nazi soldiers and the midwinter festivals held by the NSB to demonstrate their Aryan connections. In all, 125,000 Dutchmen volunteered to fight for the Nazis, while boys and girls flocked to the youth organisations.

At the harbour, we are told about the daring theft of a Fokker seaplane and an attempt to blow up a railway bridge. But we also discover that a Dutch volunteer unit refused men from Suriname in case it upset those from South Africa. As we see people queuing at the Carré Theatre in Amstel to pay respects to murdered crime reporter Peter R. de Vries, details emerge of the demand for live entertainment during the war and the staff's insistence on hiding fugitives. The doctors at the largest Jewish hospital in Amsterdam also faked illnesses and injuries to protect patients from deportation.

In Rivierenbuurt, we see stolpersteine being laid and learn the area was nicknamed `the Milky Way' during the war because of all the yellow stars. We also drop in on a house on Reguliersgracht, where the 12 Jews hidden by Ivo Schöffer survived the war, and are reminded of the lengthy sentences given to the so-called Breda Four war criminals. The role of Central Station is also discussed, as news reports tell of Ukrainian refugees coming to the city. Only 5000 of the 107,000 Jews deported returned to the Netherlands (the biggest percentage of deaths in Western Europe), with Amsterdam losing three-quarters of its 80,000 Jewish inhabitants.

Details follow of the bandstand in front of the Royal Palace and the restrictions placed upon Jews in Dam Square's De Bijenkorf department store. As we see a large climate change protest, the narration mentions a German social club at the Hotel Krasnapolsky, speeches by Reichskommissar Arthur Seyss-Inquart, and food shortage protests by women goaded into demanding action from the mayor by the Communist Party.

Following a slow tram ride through the city (accompanied by a plaintive cello) to the Electrische Museumtramlijn, we close on a bar mitzvah and some boys bursting joyously through a golden double door. It's a fitting way to conclude, as it confirms the abject failure of the Wannsee plan without diminishing from the acts of cruelty, treachery, and courage that have been so compellingly recalled.

At times, this monumental enterprise frustrates because it's not always easy to decipher names and places because Hyams has evidently undergone a crash course in Dutch pronunciation. The tone of her commentary couldn't be improved, however, and she plays a vital role in keeping the audience focussed on the gruelling realities when some of the impeccably composed visuals threaten to prove a distraction. Moreover, there's something chilling about the absence of finality whenever she informs us that a building has been demolished because it's only been physically replaced rather than erased from the record.

Whether shooting interiors or landmarks, Lennert Hillege's 35mm photography is exceptional, as it provides an intimate time capsule of Amsterdam edging its way through lockdown. The editing of McQueen and Xander Nijsten is equally measured, as it conveys the shifting rhythms of a city emerging from restriction. Oliver Coates's innovatively diverse score underlines these atmospheric shifts, while also complementing the often sombre nature of Stigter's scholarly, but accessible text.

The occasional juxtaposition will raise eyebrows, but it's difficult to understand some of the criticism of the film's content, structure, or sincerity. This is anything but a dry wander through a citywide museum exhibition. It's a troubling reminder that we never quite emerge from the shadow of the past and that we would do well to heed the lessons that history has to teach about human nature and geopolitical cycles.

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