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“Sometimes the Present Erases the Past, and Sometimes the Past Erases the Present”: Steve McQueen on His Cannes-Premiering Occupied City

Occupied City, by Steve McQueen (courtesy A24)

Tourists in Amsterdam typically stop at the Anne Frank House, but the ever-moving conga line of visitors tends to work against reflecting on the reality of its rooms. Steve McQueen’s Occupied City opens up a space for contemplation of a hundred-plus houses, buildings, and other sites across Amsterdam that are marked by World War II and the Holocaust in some way, tracing scars and trauma that may no longer be visible, much less widely known. 

Informed by an illustrated book by McQueen’s partner, Bianca Stigter (who directed Three Minutes: A Lengthening), it’s a living atlas: scenes of pandemic-era Amsterdam, overlaid with a neutral female voiceover delineating the history of particular addresses and residents. Nazi occupation effectively meant perpetual war on a home population, and so we hear of Jewish families in hiding, German military offices and outposts, Resistance fighters and publishers and artists, and the whole range of appalling, baroque cruelties (such as a guesthouse operated to entrap Jews).  

Though highlighting specific events like the 1944 famine known as the Hunger Winter, the achronological nature of survey prevents the viewer from settling into the narrative arc of the 1940s and instead underlines an unsettling simultaneity of these facts of the past and the images of the present. Rather than a facile sense of people today obliviously living on graveyards, what comes across is the fragility of mundane daily routines and the crushing feeling of absence that comes to lurk everywhere (with ready parallels to the civilian battlefields of the present in the Ukraine, Sudan, and elsewhere). For this mapping of past and present, McQueen worked with a Dutch cinematographer, Lennert Hillege, and editor, Xander Nijsten, with a shifting score by British composer and cellist Oliver Coates (Aftersun).

In its divergent audio and image, the four-hour film sets up a fraught choice for the viewer, of what to attend to and what not to—one of the more effective such choices in an oeuvre marked by the contrast between extraordinary intimacy and vulnerability, and sometimes severe formal choices that push away and pull in the viewer. I asked McQueen about that and other aspects of the film, which some critics were all too eager to dismiss as a would-be installation (while embracing another stringently conceived WWII work at Cannes, The Zone of Interest). McQueen comes to Cannes just after Grenfell (about the horrific tower fire) showed at the Serpentine in London, and as he was in postproduction on the WWII London drama, Blitz. 

Filmmaker: When did you first encounter the book?

McQueen: My wife Bianca wrote the book. I was living in Amsterdam, I’m a Londoner. These stories of the war were all around me. It’s a 17th-century city. I had this idea of maybe getting some footage from 1940 and then projecting the past onto the present—physically doing that, as some kind of artwork—and seeing the living and the dead. Then I thought, “Bianca’s writing this book, maybe the past is text, and the present is the everyday,” and I thought I’d put that together. A radical idea: forget archive footage—we can look at the past in the present. That was the starting point. She started writing years ago. I had been mulling this in my head for a while. 2005 was when I first started thinking about it.

Filmmaker: But it didn’t end up being your first feature film (or second). Why now?

McQueen: I’m the kind of person who plants seeds and sees what comes to fruition, how it grows and matures. Right now I’m living in… where am I now? In my head I’m in 2016. Because you plant seeds, and then in seven years, you see, will they come into blossom, will they fade? There’s a lot of things that have been planted. The idea is to have time to grow and for things to be consolidated.

Filmmaker: How did you decide upon a feature-film format? I’ve heard people say that it could be an installation.

McQueen: It could be.

Filmmaker: What lent it to a feature?

McQueen: I shot 36 hours of material. The whole book, really. But I wanted to put this into a feature form, a narrative form—well, not narrative, but a form for cinema. That was because I wanted it to be an experience, not a history lesson and not journalistic in that way.

Filmmaker: Would an installation be more like walking through a museum?

McQueen: I’m not saying that I won’t do that [an installation] in the end as a part of this. But you can do anything you want! There’s no rules, as far as I’m aware.

Filmmaker: In terms of the present (images) and the past (voiceover), I found that my mind couldn’t always pay attention to both after a while.

McQueen: Yes. Great.

Filmmaker: But for me the film therefore poses an ethical or moral choice, because if I only pay attention to what I’m seeing, I’m ignoring the past. 

McQueen: Sometimes the present erases the past, and sometimes the past erases the present. Sometimes you’re just listening to the text but not looking at the images, sometimes you’re just looking at the images. And that’s fine. It’s like being in a classical concert. You can’t hold it all in your head. There’s also the weight of it, the magnitude. That’s why the length is very important because the weight is impossible to  hold. That’s part of the experience as well.

Filmmaker: I almost felt guilty that I couldn’t hold both past and present in my head at the same time.

McQueen: Guilty? That’s how we’re living right now in our every day. This is something that draws from one’s own experience in our every day. Again, it’s an experience, not a history lesson. Even on the screen visually, there are some kids who are rolling up their spliffs, and they’re saying, “Oh come on with the dead babies now and going to Auschwitz.” About people going on about saving the world. They’re even saying that visually. They’re erasing. That’s the part where we talk about the Ten Commandments. No, there’s no guilt involved, it’s experience. The fact that you drift in and out is beautiful.

Filmmaker: It’s an experience that in a way divides your attention.

McQueen: Sometimes—and sometimes it consolidates.

Filmmaker: Interviews have been key to the process of documentation in other films relating to World War II and the Holocaust. What kept you away from that?

McQueen: Because I just loved the idea of this text and finding someone to deliver it in the way I wanted to deliver it. Someone talking about the facts, what was going on, but not in an incompassionate way. I love the fact that you, the audience, project the emotion and the morality in that.

Filmmaker: The quality of the voiceover is interesting: neutral but bright.

McQueen: Exactly! That is beautiful, that word “bright.” It’s coming from someone who’s living in the present rather than living in the past. It’s not a dull voice. “Bright” is exactly how I described it: it has to be bright.

Filmmaker: It reminded me how much a voice conditions how you view what’s on screen.

McQueen: But also how much you involve yourself in it.

Filmmaker: It’s not a sober, litany-like voice. And not a memorial.

McQueen: No, no.

Filmmaker: How would you describe the structure of the film? It’s not the order of the book exactly.

McQueen: No. It’s as if you were going to the city for the first time and you were walking around. You’re going left, you’re going right. The structure is not sort of ABCD. The situation is as if you were meandering, from here to there, to here, to here. Because in some ways that’s how you discover a city. Amsterdam is a wonderful city to get lost in. You find things, you come back to things. I feel it would have been a bit boring if you had the west, and then the east. You have to be more textual. People are always looking for form, and this has form, of course, but it is one which is textual.

Filmmaker: When you were putting the order together, did you go on walks yourself?

McQueen: Yes, and we took a long time to see how and where we were going to start it. One of the most important things about this project is that we shot it on 35 mm film. That structure of 35mm disciplines you and how you present it and how you go about your every day shooting. There’s a beautiful ritual which is hugely important for the picture. There’s a limitation: it’s expensive, it’s precious. So therefore every decision was made—I mean, I grew up shooting Super 8 film. So I rattled something off, and oh my god, there’s 50 pence! The economy of means of Super 8 taught me how to actually make film, before I actually shot. It gave me a craft in a way that I don’t think if I grew up with digital I would have, because I’d just spray a reel with my camera and do it in the edit.

Filmmaker: It’s still a long film.

McQueen: It is a long film.

Filmmaker: Sitting down and living with it like that gives you a feeling of the muscle memory of the city.

McQueen: Yes. I can’t imagine making this film for an hour and half. It doesn’t have the weight. It would be, “Oh, are you just visiting?” You have to go on a journey and understand the magnitude, and even then after four and a bit hours, you still realize that there’s way more out there which is not in the film, which is fine. People and time these days—I think how people see time these days is very different. Sometimes you’ve got to slow down. The fact is that the means is the process. Addresses: that’s what makes the length. It wasn’t a case of flexing. And Shoah, reading back, was criticized for its length then. 

Filmmaker: Working with your wife’s book, what did it feel like having a family connection to this history?

McQueen: It made me understand Bianca’s parents more. Her father died actually while we were shooting it. The movie is dedicated to him, Gerard Stigter. He is a very famous poet and writer in the Netherlands [known under the pseudonym K. Schippers]. He and his wife, Erica, lived though the Hunger Winter [as children]. So it was pretty profound, yeah.

Filmmaker: What sort of conversations did you have about the history?

McQueen: We had conversations all the time. There was a friend of theirs who was in hiding. Bianca’s grandfather was put in a concentration camp in the Netherlands. He was a poet. 

Filmmaker: Did you feel an added duty to get things right?

McQueen: No, the duty was to myself because it’s my everyday, it’s what I’ve been living for the past 27 years. Like I said, sometimes things are right in front of you, it’s on your doorstep, it’s under your bed. I will never see the city the same as I did when I first got here.

Filmmaker: What’s the significance of the title, beyond the literal meaning? For me, it evokes a sense of being possessed.

McQueen: In a way you’re living with ghosts here. It’s a 17th-century city, so there’s another layer of history on top of it as well.

Filmmaker: Yes, and you show a ceremony about the centuries of slavery as well.

McQueen: Yes, it’s the perennial past. And the Indonesians.

Filmmaker: Of the hundreds of historical cases and points in the film, what shocked you the most?

McQueen: My daughter’s school, just because it’s personal. My daughter went to that school where kids are putting their rucksacks into their lockers, jostling each other to go into their classroom. That space was where the SS had their interrogation center, where people were tortured and interrogated. And this place is now a jovial environment of kids going to school and learning. They don’t have to worry about that! At the same time, it’s there, it’s how it is. There it is: to have the comparison or not to have the comparison, to erase or not to erase, to listen or not to listen, to see or not to see. 

Filmmaker: It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of this history. What can we do with this information? 

McQueen: This is something one could do—make a film. I think the thing for me is not to forget what has been sacrificed for our liberty and our freedom, for me to talk now. It’s no small thing. It’s real.  That’s the key, the fact that me and you sitting across the table take it as the norm that we can have these conversations, and it’s far from the norm. There were battles fought in the street for it. 

Filmmaker: There are stories of survival, and devastating stories of suicide as well.

McQueen: Could you imagine to be so hapless that the only way out for you is to take your own life—and also your children’s? We take things so much for granted, and with the rise of the far right coming up again, we have to be very mindful of that. I can’t fathom that.

Filmmaker: The film also shows the periods of lockdown in Amsterdam during the COVID pandemic. People protest the lockdown, and the police force (some on horseback) crack down. I don’t think it’s conflating the lockdown with the occupation, as I’d heard a couple of viewers say. I think it’s just showing how the state apparatus of force can be activated.

McQueen: Yeah, absolutely, what you’re saying is making sense. But also in a visual narrative, things can change. You have antivaxxers—which obviously I don’t support—on Dam Square at a time in a history when it can change into this military policing, which you can, if you want to, project as the Nazis or not. It’s one of those things where I am not supporting that, but again when you put a past on the present, people try and force a narrative on top of the image and make sense of them—and unfortunately make nonsense as well.

Filmmaker: At one point, when you show hotel workers making the bed and we see them in the mirror, I couldn’t help but think of Vermeer. 

McQueen: Sure, sure.

Filmmaker: A lot of your work has been in dialogue with art history. How is that functioning in the movie? 

McQueen: I’m not very conscious of that, but again these things happen. There you have it. But again people can project what they want or how they think. As a filmmaker, I don’t want people to have expectations of who I am or what I do. As my mother said to me, “Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” As an artist, you have to strive to challenge yourself, and that’s it. And I think there’s a lot of joy in the movie. The ice skating: people are always going to celebrate, people are always going to venture out and do things. As much as it is miserable and mournful, it’s celebratory.

Filmmaker: About a half-hour into the movie, I began to think there should be a hundred movies like this for cities around the world and their histories.

McQueen: Yes, there should be—there could be! Wouldn’t that be amazing? That would be wonderfully beautiful. What happened in this location. What would it look like, what would it sound like, what are the contradictions, what are the uncomfortable things.

Filmmaker: I inevitably thought of your film 12 Years a Slave. I would love to see this done for, say, South Carolina.

McQueen: Wouldn’t that be great? Please write that in your piece! That would be amazing. That would be kind of frightening and exciting and thrilling. 

Filmmaker: Because the relationship in America to the past is oblivion. One aspect of the idea of the melting pot is to erase the past.

McQueen: Well, precisely, that is it. And that’s why 12 Years a Slave is interesting for me. I remember these conversations weren’t being had.

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