How do you make a film about the Holocaust? The latest film from multi-award-winning British director Steve McQueen focuses on buildings and their occupants and was filmed in more than 100 Amsterdam premises between 2019 and 2022, just before and during numerous Covid-related lockdowns.
The film is based on his wife Bianca Stigter’s book Atlas of an Occupied City: Amsterdam 1940-1945. While some have assumed that McQueen and Stigter are somehow making some kind of parallel between lockdown and the Holocaust, they were both keen to set the record straight when I spoke to them this week.
“We’re showing things that happened in the same locations at different times,” says Stigter. “Some people that do the protests have compared them to each other, but I think the whole film proves that the lockdowns and the protests are something entirely different to the German occupation of Amsterdam.”
“I mean, it’s kind of funny,” says McQueen. “You know, we’re living in a world that always tries to join the dots, and that’s what it’s about. But the situation is very simple. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that Nazi occupation of Amsterdam and Covid couldn’t be more different.”
Bianca Stigter and Steve McQueen (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for June Beallor Productions)
At four hours and 22 minutes running time, McQueen’s film takes us from the invasion in 1940; through the establishment of the collaborationist Dutch Nazi party with its brutal repression and deportation of Jewish citizens all the way to the death camps. All the while this is illustrated by scenes of everyday life in the buildings mentioned.
“It’s one of the most significant things that has happened in the last 100 years in Amsterdam. So how can you not be interested in it?” says Amsterdam-born Stigter who was last interviewed in the JC in 2022 for her documentary Three Minutes: A Lengthening, another film with the Shoah as its subject.
“For me, it was something very natural to try and find out more about it. [I told myself] if I know more, I will understand more, but then in the end that doesn’t happen, you know... the more you know, the less you understand.”
McQueen’s relationship with Europe’s recent past might seem different from Stigter’s at first glance, but that is not how he sees it at all.
“My own journey and how I got here to speak to you today has obviously been massively affected by the war,” he tells me. “I wouldn’t be speaking to you if the West Indian community hadn’t been asked to come over to help [rebuild] the UK after the Blitz. So the whole narrative of the Second World War has affected everybody and everything.
“It was just interesting that my city [Amsterdam] in which I was living and in which I was raising my children with Bianca, had this sort of weight on it, too, which we wanted to sort of illuminate on screen,” he says. One of their children attended the Amsterdam school which the Gestapo took over during the occupation, and which reverted to being a school again after the war.
Since the October 7 attacks, instances of antisemitism around the world and in Europe in particular have increased tenfold. I wondered if both McQueen and Stigter feel a duty to broach the historical persecution of Jews right now?
“I think with what’s going on in the news and in recent times in the Netherlands, and with the rise of the far right who won the majority of votes in the recent election… the rise of Islamophobia and antisemitism, it seems like people don’t learn from the past,” says McQueen.
“But as I said, I mean, what else do we have to learn from? And it’s troubling and worrying, but at the same time, I do have admiration for the youth and young people to take the reins of this and to go forward and change it. That’s where my hope lies and that’s where the hope lies in Occupied City.
“As you see at the end of the picture, there is this young child who’s a boy who’s rehearsing for his bar mitzvah. Now the Nazis didn’t win and there’s a future for Jewish people in Amsterdam, which is, I feel heartwarming because it actually is. It was our friends’ son’s bar mitzvah which coincidentally was a week ago,” he tells me proudly.
As an artist, McQueen won the Turner Prize in 1999, but has since mostly dedicated his working life to making feature-length movies, broaching an array of dark and intense subject matters in films such as Hunger, Shame and 12 Years A Slave. The latter was nominated for a total of nine Oscars in 2014, winning three.
His close working relationship with his wife feels very natural.
“I wouldn’t even call it work, it’s a conversation,” he offers. “We live together and we are both good listeners. I think that’s the thing, but I wouldn’t even call it work, it’s just a case of you know… living together and sharing a life together”
Stigter feels pretty much the same about their collaborative experience both in life and art.
“I think what may be important is that you never have fear of saying something that you might not want to say to other people you don’t know, where you might say ‘hmm should I say this idea or not’. And here you just can be fearless. So in that sense, it’s easier to exchange ideas.”
Occupied City by Steve McQueen is released on 9 February. On 11 February a special screening at the Barbican includes a Q&A with McQueen and Stigter