Dunkirk


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Flags: 'It's a very pretty sky, sir.  Somebody sent me a calendar rather like that last Christmas.'

Capt Kinross: 'Did it have a squadron of Dorniers in the upper right-hand corner?'

Flags: 'No, sir.'

Capt Kinross: 'That's where art parts company with reality.'

                               – In Which We Serve (dir Noël Coward and David Lean, 1942)

Made only two years after the events it depicts took place, In Which We Serve was the first film to reenact parts of the Dunkirk evacuation.  Unlike later treatments, which often explored the effects of the 'phony war' period more critically - most notably in Leslie Norman's ambivalent Dunkirk (1958) - here, historical contextualising and comment were kept to a bare minimum; with the events still so sharply resonant for the majority of its audience, anything more would hardly have been necessary.

Instead, the episode focusses on the individuals involved: on shell-shocked soldiers recuperating below deck on a ship, on the naval men comforting them as they ferry them home.  After the soldiers disembark, there is a long, slow pan over their faces.  In one of the film's most quietly devastating moments, the lingering expressions of the serving troops drafted in for the sequence are allowed to stand in place of the events which audiences would have understood their characters had witnessed.

75 years on, Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is hardly any different in favouring human drama over historical documentation.  Despite being Nolan's first film to set itself firmly within the scope of actual events, these nevertheless provide only the essential framework for fictional characters to follow their representative stories within.  In this light, it seems ironic that Nolan's sprawling science-fiction epic, Interstellar (2014), should have given over several minutes to scripted, documentary-style interviews about a fictional future history, while Dunkirk avoids those it could presumably have incorporated about the real thing.

Similarly, as a modern film originated on 70mm, Dunkirk is also characterised by its restraint: it is an hour shorter than Interstellar, Nolan's own previous 70mm, and barely half as long as Quentin Tarantino's roadshow version of The Hateful Eight (2015).  Indeed, at 106 minutes, Dunkirk is Nolan's shortest feature in nearly twenty years, eclipsed only by his taut debut, Following (1998).  Thus, where films like The Hateful Eight are characterised by just how much they can cram in, Dunkirk is a model of how much can be left out.

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In these and other respects, Dunkirk marks a decisive new phase in Nolan's filmography.  It consciously jettisons the philosophical meanderings and interminable explanations of quantum physics which typified Inception (2010) and Interstellar, and resists both the grandiose spectacle of the Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012) and the dense complexities of The Prestige (2006).  Instead, Nolan returns to the barest essentials of his craft, falling back on tales of individual behaviour under extraordinary - yet, crucially, realistic - circumstances.

Likewise, the non-linear storytelling which Nolan has been developing since Memento (2000) now gives way to a simple set of three converging timelines which, for the majority of the film, interact solely through association.  Each of their representative sketches traces the arc of Dunkirk itself, progressing from utter despair towards increasing hope and finally to relief and the hope to persevere.  Hoyte Van Hoytema's cinematography and Hans Zimmer's score serve this narrative implicitly: their initially stark, minimalist approach - with dull visual palette and single-instrument drones serving as bare counterpoint to Nolan's own sparse dialogue - slowly, almost imperceptibly broadening out as the film progresses.

But in what (on the surface, at least) appears to be a war film, perhaps the most remarkable omission is that, with a single exception, at no point is the enemy ever depicted.  In hindsight, the rationale for this is clear: the vast majority of the film's protagonists are, in many ways, no longer active combatants.  Within the timeframe of the film, they are never engaged in trying to gain victory through valorous combat, but instead wholly preoccupied with either evading their own deaths or preventing those of their comrades.  The typical sequences of individual or collective battlefield glory are therefore elided, the accompanying opponents alongside them.

In fact, only one pilot's story invokes the war film's traditional meting out of death to anonymised enemies - and, even here, the resulting dogfight sequences tacitly acknowledge the familiar use of these exploits as popular spectacle, with other characters cheering their side on as they watch from land and sea.  But such sequences are remarkable only as exceptions; the one attributable death of the film - in which both killer and victim are visible entities - is no success to be revelled in, but its most singular tragedy.

Combined, these qualities point to the conclusion that what Christopher Nolan has sought to create in Dunkirk is, ultimately, not a war film at all, but rather a modern mythology: a mix of Iliad and Odyssey in which high body counts and aestheticised slaughter are abandoned in favour of archetypal explorations into the nature of camaraderie and bravery, cowardice and survival.  The real scale of Operation Dynamo is only itself barely glimpsed: even as one character reads excerpts from Winston Churchill's iconic 'we will fight in France' speech, the visual accompaniment meditates on the fate of other individual characters rather than on the collective Dunkirk miracle.

Here, as with the Trojan War of old, historical events serve merely as the backdrop for revealing the essential components of our own humanity: they are the moments in which can be simultaneously revealed the ease of killing or the determination to prevent it.  In following such a course, Nolan's vision of Dunkirk is itself revealed as one in which, at the height of wartime, triumph could for once be measured not in the ending of lives, but by the saving of them.

Marc David Jacobs
Freelance arts worker

July 2017

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