I reluctantly sat down this morning with Steve McQueen‘s Occupied City, a doc about the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam during World War II and the various oppressions, suppressions and terrors that arose from this. “Reluctantly” because I’d read that McQueen’s film is a bit of a tough one or, in the words of Variety‘s Owen Gleiberman, “a trial to sit through.” It seemed at the very least unworthy of a four-hour-plus investment. Maybe.

I was nonetheless ready to engage, and I can at least report that I didn’t hate it. Given the historical aspect you might presume that McQueen would be using troves of digitally enhanced archival footage from the war years, but it was all shot during the pandemic of ’20 and ’21, and in vivid color inside a boxy (1.37:1) aspect ratio, and overflowing with Amsterdam capturings.

It’s based upon “Atlas of an Occupied City: Amsterdam 1940-1945,” a purportedly exacting coffee-table book by McQueen’s wife Bianca Stigter, and it’s basically one fixed-tripod tableau after another of Amsterdam, augmented or expanded upon by narration (read by Melanie Hyams) about this or that dark anecdote or tale about Jewish residents of that Dutch city who were persecuted or hid in attics or were eventually murdered in concentration camps. But it feels awfully dry and rote and static, I can tell you. It’s not boring or uninvolving but a bit flat, but within 12 or 15 minutes I was muttering to myself “this is it?”

McQueen’s basic idea (hold on, it’s a lulu) is that the bureaucratic repression of the Covid years, which we all felt pained and smothered by in more ways than one, and the deeply injurious Amsterdam restrictions, suffocations and violations of the early to mid 1940s are somehow related. Or, you know, not dissimilar.

This is what the film keeps saying over and over, that we’re all living in the now but that the past is still with us (and isn’t even “the past”, heh-heh) and lingering in our hearts and souls and all that. It’s a strange concept but I went with it, and I certainly came to know the various neighborhoods and bridges and weathered buildings and town squares of Amsterdam look like these days, much more than ever before, I mean, and I’ve been to Amsterdam, mind. Too many British pubs, too many party boys.

But I have to be honest and admit that my eyelids didn’t make it all the way through. I’m blaming this not on myself but on a certain fellow I’m sharing the apartment with, and more particularly his grizzly bear-snoring…make that his Steven Spielberg T-Rex snoring. (More on this in subsequent story.)

McQueen’s film includes an intermission, and it’s finally time to fulfill the promise of the above headline and state that the musical entr’acte interlude between parts one or two is truly, oddly moving. In a liturgical sense. I loved just sitting there and letting it sink in. It made me feel oddly happy, and also persuaded me that there might be something deeper to Occupied City…something that i wasn’t paying sufficient attention to. But I let that notion go.