Steve McQueen’s Occupied City: documenting Amsterdam’s absences
Over four hours of meditative, reflective filmmaking, Steve McQueen offers a portrait of two Amsterdams – the modern day city & another of absences, lives & memories lost to the Holocaust. Darran Anderson watched  McQueen’s study of the city, set to a voiceover drawn from historical research of Bianca Stigter, searching to understand how something so harrowing could occur in a place so normal & unremarkable.

The ravine at Babi Yar, the gas chambers of Belzec, the burning Warsaw Ghetto, the gates of Auschwitz, Chelmno, Sobibor, Treblinka… Though many locations are still underknown and others are still being found and unearthed, we know of a multitude of places where the Holocaust took place, where the lives of millions were brutally extinguished. Where it began is much more difficult to establish. If we find a point of origin – the Wannsee Conference for instance, where the blueprints for genocide were discussed in a villa amidst the woods and lakes – there are still many earlier locations where the seeds were sown. Newspaper offices, beerhalls, police stations, churches, barracks, scientific institutions, universities...

For many of those consumed in the Shoah, the nightmare began in their own homes, the moment when the vortex of antisemitism swirling and accumulating for years suddenly became horrifically tangible, personal, and inescapable with the sound of boots at the door. In her book Atlas of an Occupied City (Amsterdam 1940-1945), Bianca Stigter charts these addresses within Amsterdam, just one tributary of the Holocaust, and the backgrounds of the occupants who were stolen away. Steve McQueen’s latest documentary Occupied City begins with this map, transposed over the Covid-era city, his adopted hometown. It searches through a contemporary cityscape to find traces of those who inhabited the once was. The challenge is a considerable one – how do you make a film of absences?


Resisting archival footage or talking heads, McQueen’s approach is primarily spatial – shots of buildings, rooms where the victims lived, the streets they walked, were banned from and then hounded through – with an accompanying voiceover gleaned from Stigter’s exacting investigations. With a subject so monumentally daunting, a departure from our usual cinematic experience and narrative structure is required; Claude Lanzmann’s witness-bearing film Shoah (1985) for instance was over nine hours long and constructed from interviews collected from fourteen countries. Given how unremitting in brutality and gargantuan in scale the Holocaust was, any attempt at sentimentality, or even traditional narrative arcs and structures, runs the risk of feeling like a betrayal. One way to avoid this is to attempt to stare into the abyss, as Elem Klimov’s harrowing, apocalyptic and surreal Come and See (1985) manages to. Another is to embark on the pseudo-religious approach of litany, which is Occupied City’s route.

The effect is hypnotic in its pacing and repetition, but restless too. Covering 130 addresses, over four hours Occupied City lures the viewer into a rhythm that makes the sudden jarring revelations upsetting when they come. It is broken by an interlude that feels like a memorial, a confessional even, rather than a pit-stop. Though its focus is the largely secular modern metropolis, the film feels religious in an oddly medieval way, perhaps a question of pacing or the result of the Breughel-esque scenes that emerge throughout. It feels like a long meditation, if you go along with it, and even the moments that feel gruelling are an opportunity for reflection. It’s not an easy watch, at times, and it shouldn’t be.


Considering it is made by a Turner Prize winner, there’s a notable resistance to the artful throughout. There are set-pieces, particularly the scene of children trying to make it up an icy slope, but even these are sparing. There is beauty to be found, of course, in Amsterdam’s architecture – the Lyceum, the Rijksmuseum, Centraal station, the grachtenpanden – but it comes in passing. Mostly, the tone and techniques are sober, domestic, verging on the mundane – joggers, buskers, kayakers on the canals, skaters when they freeze over, someone learning the piano, someone pissing in the bushes. The understated portrait of the city is intentional, at once clashing and intertwining with the historical horrors alluded to in the voiceover. How could such evil take place somewhere as normal, as unremarkable, as this?

A sense of abnormality is conveyed however in McQueen’s concentration on lockdown-era protests, tacitly comparing and contrasting with how the occupying and collaborating authorities operated towards the citizenry in the early 1940s. It’s a reflexive approach, inviting all manner of questions into the viewers’ minds. What could suspensions of rights and emergency powers lead to? What are we to make of police, following orders, opening up on protestors with water hoses and cavalry charges? How thin was the ice then and now? How robust is democracy in an age when populists and elites, separable only by taste, are hollowing it out from within? What have these streets seen and what will they see in the future?


McQueen is a clever and open filmmaker. He knows none of the comparisons fit easily, and we flatter ourselves and diminish the past in doing so. It makes for a palpable unanswerable unease, a tension that holds the film together as much as the structure of the addresses. This is heightened by lingering perspectives and juxtapositions. A simple view of a bridge lowering becomes claustrophobic. Footage of denture makers recalls the piles of belongings in Auschwitz and the physical dismantling of human beings by Mengele’s doctors. An altar appears to resemble a skull. This is a city of secrets, a city we only think we know, just as we only think we know ourselves and what we are capable or incapable of doing.

McQueen’s touch is largely delicate. Small details are revelatory. The shrouding of Jewish names in a concert hall or the melting of church bells, a lightness that allows space for enquiry. There is a great deal of leaning on the narration, with references abounding to events like Mad Tuesday, the Hunger Winter, the executions in the North Sea dunes, the falsification bureau of the Dutch Resistance, the ice cream parlour rebellion, the late massacre on Dam Square, the inequities of the Dutch Empire and so on. Yet it never feels weighted down by text. The truly monstrous moments – the tale of foundlings being examined for supposedly Jewish physiognomy or the recounting of familial suicides for instance – are scarcely bearable to consider but are delivered in such a sensitive way that it makes you do so long after the film ends.

The one exception is, in my mind, the most powerful scene in the film, all the more so because of the restraint shown before and after. Recalling the murderous curfew that was inflicted upon the people of Amsterdam by their Nazi occupiers, McQueen moves his camera through the nocturnal streets and buildings of the city. Using a swirling motion, and dolly zooms, he captures a feeling of isolation and disorientation. A world ostensibly continuing all around but collapsing in on itself. The vertigo this induces, at once unreal and hyperreal, is comparable to Daniel Libeskind's expressionist Jewish Museum in Berlin, where the space is constructed to feel out of sync, as it must have a thousand times over for the Dutch inhabitants and especially Jewish men, women, and children of the time.


In the end, we cannot know. Part of the humanity and bravery of a film like Occupied City is its implicit knowledge of its, and our, own limitations. Primo Levi wrote of Holocaust survivors like himself (“a tiny but also an anomalous minority”), “We are those who, through prevarication, skill, or luck, never touched bottom. Those who have, and who have seen the face of the Gorgon, did not return, or returned wordless.”

Occupied City hits this limit of language, beyond which we cannot pass. It presents two Amsterdams of then and now, and a multitude of Amsterdams therein, for each citizen. In showing the vast differences between the 1940s and the 2020s, via the same physical spaces, McQueen and Stigter suggest this is not the same place and yet it is. How is that possible? How can time hide what happened? How can civilisation remain civilised with such knowledge, then and now? We have lived for too long mistaking the ice of time and space for solid ground. Occupied City is an astonishing discomforting film that feels like a ritual as much as an exploration. A four-hour meditation amidst the cascades of misery and murder flashing up on our screens every day. It is a troubling reminder that we cannot know the depths but, if there’s to be any hope for us, we must attempt to look.


Steve McQueen is an Academy Award winner and British Film Institute Fellow Steve McQueen is a British artist and filmmaker. His critically acclaimed first feature Hunger (2008), starring Michael Fassbender as an IRA hunger-striker, won the Camera D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. He re-teamed with Fassbender for his follow up feature Shame (2011) for which Fassbender won the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival for Best Actor. McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave (2013) dominated the awards season, winning the Academy Award, Golden Globe, BAFTA and AAFCA Awards for Best Picture while McQueen received DGA, Academy, BAFTA and Golden Globe directing nods. His fourth feature Widows (2018) was one of the best reviewed films of the year and starred Viola Davis, Cynthia Erivo, Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez. In 2020, McQueen’s anthology series Small Axe, comprising five original films about resilience and triumph in London’s West Indian community from the late 1960s through the early 80s, was awarded Best Picture by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, while McQueen received the Storyteller Award for series at the 16th Annual Final Draft Awards. Small Axe was also the recipient of fifteen BAFTA Television nominations. Three of the five films in the series played at the 58th New York Film Festival with Lovers Rock opening the fest, with two of the five selected for the 2020 Cannes Film Festival.
The recipient of many accolades for his work as a visual artist, McQueen was awarded with the Turner Prize in 1999, and represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2009. He has exhibited and held his artwork in major museums around the world. A retrospective was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago and at the Schaulager in Basel. In 2016, he received the Johannes Vermeer Award at the Hague. Tate Modern and Tate Britain were home to two critically acclaimed shows in 2019/2020, Year 3 and Retrospective Steve McQueen. In 2017, McQueen made an artwork in response to the fire that took place earlier that year on 14 June at Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, West London. 72 people died in the tragedy. McQueen showed Grenfell for the first time at The Serpentine Gallery in London in April through 10 May 2023. In 2020, McQueen was awarded a knighthood in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List for his services to the Arts.

Bianca Stigter is an historian and cultural critic. She writes for Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad and has published three books of essays. Stigter was an associate producer on Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave and Widows. In 2019 she published the book Atlas van een bezette stad. Amsterdam 1940-1945 (Atlas of an Occupied City. Amsterdam 1940-1945). In 2021 she directed the documentary Three Minutes – A Lengthening, which premiered in the Giornate degli Autori at the Venice Film Festival and was selected for the festivals of Telluride, Toronto, Sundance, as well as IDFA and DocAviv. Three Minutes – A Lengthening won the 2022 Yad Vashem Award for cinematic excellence in a Holocaust related Documentary. It played to great critical acclaim in cinema’s in the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and other cou

Darran Anderson is the author of Imaginary Cities, Inventory, and the forthcoming In the Land of My Enemy. His work focuses on urban history, speculative futures, and the legacies of empire. He is based in London.

Occupied City by Steve McQueen is currently showing in cinemas across the UK. For listings and further information see:


figs.i-viii Stills taken from Occupied City (2023) directed by Steve McQueen. Courtesy the director and Modern Films.
fig.ix Steve McQueen. ©James Stopforth.

publication date
12 February 2024

Absences, Amsterdam, Antisemitism, Atlas of an Occupied City, City, Covid, Darran Anderson, Documentary, Film, History, The Holocaust, Jewish, Jewish Museum Berlin, Elem Klimov, Claude Lanzmann, Primo Levi, Daniel Libeskind, Steve McQueen, Memory, Occupied City, Shoah, Bianca Stigter, World War Two