Written by Sarah Pavey.
Submerged. That’s how it felt watching Dunkirk this summer. It was a theater experience unlike any other. I’ve watched countless WWII films made during and after the 1940s, but nothing was like this. Christopher Nolan’s stunning interpretation of the historic event was highly physical because of a combination of visual and auditory stimuli and even moments of silence in the film seemed to fill the senses. Skillfully written and directed by Nolan, he manages to capture the feeling and importance of the Battle of Dunkirk, (which took place between May 26 and June 4, 1940), without glorifying war. Instead, he communicates the visceral power of the elements in contrast with ourselves; infinitesimal humans at the mercy of the sea, the air, and the destruction we hurl at each other. To even envision this film as a cinematic artist takes guts. But, with great delicacy of hand, Nolan crafts a work that is both action-packed and so full of thought and purpose that the viewer is shaken to the core. Not what you’d expect from a successful summer blockbuster, yet it became the highest-grossing World War II film of all time.
Unlike the majority of WWII films, the characters’ personal stories were not at the heart of the plot. Nolan stated this year that, “The empathy for the characters has nothing to do with their story. I did not want to go through the dialogue, tell the story of my characters... The problem is not who they are, who they pretend to be or where they come from. The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it?” The acting from everyone, especially from Fionn Whitehead, was so real it was hard to think of him as an actor and not an actual soldier brought forward in time especially for this film.
From left to right, images via Britannica, Indie Wire, IBTimes UK, and Daily Mail.
Dunkirk is so seamlessly constructed that you might not notice all the details that go into it. Nolan uses overlapping time frames as the over-arching frame of the plot. This device has the potential to be really dull but it actually adds even more tension to the film. While you do learn the fate of certain characters from the perspective of a parallel storyline, the tension as to whether that character will live or die remains strong. It’s a hackneyed phrase that a film has you “on the edge of your seat,” but I literally found myself doing just that.
Warning! this film does not allow you to relax at any point. In that sense, the film is very much like war as you move from trauma to trauma, living for rest but thrust back into the fray like a helpless animal. And perhaps what’s even more disturbing is that you’re constantly being hooked by the music. With an eerie use of synthesizers programmed by Hans Zimmer, you are literally tricked into hearing tension. Zimmer deliberately uses the musical illusion of the “Shepard tone,” which is an audio illusion that makes you think the tone is rising higher and higher but it never actually does. It’s a corkscrew effect, like a barber’s pole but for the ears. So when it’s used in a film that has very few, if any, climaxes, it makes the viewing journey that much more real. Zimmer also uses sounds that imitate aircraft blades, sirens, the thumping of a nervous heartbeat, steps down a long echoing corridor, and a ticking clock. You can’t break away. The illusion of tension mimics the effects PTSD has on the brain, fooling it to think it’s under threat. In the tradition of Vangellis, Hans Zimmer brings the dread of the Blade Runner score and the hopefulness of Chariots of Fire to the beaches of 1940 France.
The undercurrent of sound pairs beautifully with a wide range of the camera shots. The sheer scope of Dunkirk is incredible, and we get a physical sense of where we are. We’re not just looking at a two-dimensional vision of this place in history, we are thrown in to experience it. We can feel the bombs overhead, the torpedo underneath, the bitter wind on our faces like a coming storm. But we also feel the peace of the tide and the exhilaration of flight. Nolan doesn’t just show us one thing; he shows us everything.
One thing that is hard for us to fathom is that there are so many ways to die in war. This film captures that like no other--but neither does it leave us feeling hopeless. It’s a miracle my English grandfather got off the beach that day in June. I thought about him the whole time I was sitting in the darkness. I thought about who lived. I thought about the fact that I might not exist if he didn’t make it. That’s the grim reality of war. It’s luck of the draw. And literally no one wins, not even the victor. This film is not about victory, it’s about survival. And that survival is exhilarating.