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NYFF Review: Steve McQueen Can’t Hold Your Interest Throughout the Epic Runtime of ‘Occupied City’

Steve McQueen is a master filmmaker. Look at his career and there isn’t a weak link in the bunch. So, it’s hardly a surprise that an epic documentary like Occupied City would appeal to him, not just as a challenge, but also as a passion project. So, it’s a shame to report that the interest that he has here is not transferred to you the viewer. Playing at the New York Film Festival, this is a doc that runs at least twice the length it needs to.

Occupied City is four hours long and you feel every bit of it. McQueen is doing that largely on purpose, but making this a grueling experience doesn’t make it any more effective. For me, instead of the dulling effect simulating what happened in the past and could be happening in the future, we have a documentary that just feels like it’s going in circles. It’s a shame, too, since McQueen clearly cares deeply about this. He just has chosen an avenue that probably would have been better served playing on a loop in a museum, instead of a theatrically released feature.

The film is based on the book “Atlas of an Occupied City: Amsterdam 1940-1945,” chronicled by author Bianca Stigter, McQueen’s wife. It, like the movie, is an all-encompassing examination of the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam during World War II. Accounts of atrocities, both big and small, are depicted, all the while as life in the city goes onl.

In addition to looking at the occupation during WWII, the past is also in conversation with the present here. The doc moves from the 40s to more recent times, where global pandemics and large scale protests are going on. By looking backwards and straight ahead, McQueen wants us to be looking forwards as well.


Steve McQueen is a terrific filmmaker, but he struggles to invest the audience in his epic documentary. The hypnotic way he’s told narrative tales like Shame is not in evidence here. While the material is as heavy as anything fictional he’s done, or historical fiction in the cases of 12 Years a Slave and Hunger, this time it’s dulled by bloat. Now, there’s intent here, but even if it’s effectively doing the job it set out to do, it’s doing it in a way that prevents you from sticking with it.

It’s important to note that you could feel completely differently about the movie than I did, and that’s totally fine. The repetitive and dry nature of the work kept me at arm’s length. You might be captivated from start to finish. I truly wish that for you, in fact. It gave me no pleasure to be left cold and indifferent to something as important as this.

Occupied City was not for me. As mentioned above, it plays more like an art installation than a film. The documentary will undoubtedly blow some people away, both here at NYFF and elsewhere, but I found shockingly little in it to hold on to. Would it have worked better at more of a manageable length? Perhaps, but that wasn’t Steve McQueen’s vision here. I greatly respect said vision, it just wasn’t one I could embrace. Alas.

SCORE: ★★1/2


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Written by Joey Magidson

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