Most war films show us battles, give us context, surround us in politics. Dunkirk does none of these. Dunkirk is a film that is not about a battle; it is about a retreat, and the little context and politics given is irrelevant. This is a film shown to us through the subjective lens of soldiers and civilians trapped in their dire situations, and what care would they have for what happens before and after the event when their only need is to survive.
In case you missed that history lesson or never stuck around to listen to your grandfather’s war stories, the French seaside town of Dunkirk was where, in 1940, hundreds of thousands of allied (mostly British) troops were trapped and surrounded by the German army. What came to help was not just the Royal Navy, but an armada of civilian ships and boats.
“It is a film that feels honest and yet subjective”
Writer/director (and auteur) Christopher Nolan follows three separate but interlinked stories within the chaos. “The Mole”, which lasts a period of one week, “The Sea”, which lasts one day, and “The Air”, which lasts one hour.
Each section shows us the events through the point of view of different characters. We see what they see. One of the more interesting things that comes from this is that Dunkirk barely even shows us a German soldier. The lack of personification of ‘the enemy’ sets out what sort of war movie this is. No option for a fight back – just make do with what you’ve got. If the antagonist isn’t shown, it can’t be defeated. In this way Dunkirk strips its characters of options without stripping them of agency. It is a film that feels honest and yet subjective. Brief moments of heroism do not glorify war in the way one of those old John Wayne movies would, but they are respected and appreciated all the same.
Christopher Nolan’s films have often been described as being cold and clinical. But Dunkirk moves you through another channel. Instead of the Spielbergian swelling of music and grandstanding monologues (seen in Saving Private Ryan), Dunkirk is scored by a ticking clock and the spoken words are few and far-between. For a film low on pathos, it nevertheless burrows to your heart by engaging your empathy by making you feel the character’s sense of despair.
The camera finds itself in places where it can command us to empathise with these people who are victims of circumstance. We are shown only what they can see. The dog fights are not explained with geographical precision but with confusion and desperation. The need to keep things tidy is chucked aside (as is the case with all of Nolan’s films) which separates this even more from other war films. Being right in the action with little exposition and little mapping of the scenes means Dunkirk does not pander to its audience in the way a lesser film would. It has been said of Nolan that he treats his audiences as if they’re not stupid (which again separates him from most blockbuster-makers), and with three interwoven plots told in a nonlinear sequence and a suffocated use of exposition, this is no exception. Still, however, it is surprisingly easy to follow.
How does this connect with the rest of Nolan’s oeuvre, I was asking myself walking out of the cinema. The king of the arthouse blockbuster has always made films heavy in their philosophical subtexts. Dunkirk offers little philosophy (no clowns yelling at you about nihilism *cough* The Dark Knight *cough*), in fact there seems to be no agenda at all. What connects this with his other works is his exploration of the cinematic medium.
“FOR A FILM LOW ON PATHOS, IT NEVERTHELESS BURROWS TO YOUR HEART”
The operation of the camera by accomplished cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema stretches the limits of what film can bring you. Nolan is a champion of celluloid, party because he is a cinematheque purist, and partly because it clearly suits the films he makes. With Dunkirk shot on 70mm IMAX film, there is a definite adoration-beyond-respect for the camera. Buster Keaton once filmed himself playing with a camera in his usual comedic sense, but what comes across is his love for a machine with the power of reaching so many. If Nolan ever featured in his own short film, the famously hands-on director would be inspecting a (probably IMAX) camera with the same curiosity.