History and Nolan’s Human Psyche
Deconstructing Dunkirk as a war film, a little about history might be helpful. In the history of World War II, Dunkirk is one place where the eyewitnesses see how devastating the battle was. From May 27 to June 4, France’s port city, located just 10 kilometers from Belgium, became a refuge for British and French soldiers. Germany cornered thanks to Adolf Hitler’s tactics, who announced his desire to rule Western Europe. About 400 thousand soldiers were threatened; the explosion of the bomb and the loud sound of gunfire made those on the ground deaf. There are the Nazi warplanes from the airdrop bombs. On the other hand, reinforcements never come from the ocean. They are resigned to waiting to die or waiting for safety.
Christopher Nolan deconstructing Dunkirk as a war film. He caught and recorded the event with such minimal dialogue. Several characters that we don’t even know the name of is typical of Nolan. He used to dig into the human psyche. The terror of war, the fear of dying, and the mind’s safety challenge the actors. They must show suspense, gestures, and facial expressions. This fear focuses on three narrative points of view: Fionn Whitehead in the mole, Tom Hardy in the air, and Mark Rylance in the sea. The center of the theme uses visual storytelling, which focuses on saving from these three points of view. Nolan also provides little information about the flow and timeframe from these points of view. In essence, he did not give a large space to dig into the character’s background.
Christopher Nolan loves to play with the chronology of time. His filmography is Pandora’s box. His work is a non-linear backward play, a game of the twins, and a round of layers within layers. Running in a parallel universe in Interstellar, Nolan conceptualizes his works into a time-bending and mind-bending experimental where the mainstream audience likes him. His previous films had always simultaneously involved a time performance where time-twisting and absurd narrative at the same time was overplayed within the frame. But, deconstructing Dunkirk as a war film, in fact, is direct to the concept itself.
In a three-act structure, simply put, the audience sees each scene one by one, whether the main plot or subplot is moving forward. The standard rules and dichotomies of scenario constructs apply when the story has an introduction, conflict, and resolution. However, as the audience knows, Christopher Nolan has always deviated from these rules. In deconstructing Dunkirk, the war film of these three narrative lines actually, apart from being minimal, go forward. Whitehead spent the week alternating between idling on the beach and waiting for evacuation. Rylance, as his picker, drove the ship across the channel. Hardy and his Spitfire ran into a German plane, preventing soldiers from the other side from crossing and preventing Britain and France.
It is the urgency of combining narrative without any lines between traditional storylines. Instead, it appears to have a series of random events in which the minimalist plot operates like a three-act structure. It’s just a matter of perspective, and Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane and Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca have taught us. The three narratives are reconstructed separately, but the conventional structure involves a three-fold exposition and explanation act. Nolan’s briefing and intentions of referring to such action are how the audience doesn’t know or doesn’t even care. Existence and perspective are not the keys to where Dunkirk takes place in the first place. It is the survival where sympathy and empathy are tested when you are in a position like the people in this film.
The narrative line between the individual and the incident constructs the effects of characters with less importance. In short, the entire concept film is like waiting, simultaneously, and hoping for a new event. Mural-wise and not linearly, it helped to intersect the event just by who these people are. Dunkirk’s various ensembles consist of an event where Hollywood’s stereotypical war film never existed. There is no point where inspirational dialogue is emotional. There is also no exaggeration of action, explosion, heroism, and patriotism, sort of, in various plans. Then, what do the characters really want? What’s the whole point of the entire concept when you watch this film and hope you’ll get such acknowledgment?
Dunkirk is a deconstructing masterful event of war film where a particular time, situation, and place forms a suspense meaning from understanding what is emotional. Indeed, to redefine a war, whether in film, history, social, or reality, requires a phenomenon and a perspective where the purpose, abstraction, and intention in the first place. Yes, Nolan never shows it from the actor’s perspective, optionally, even though in vague form. Even Nolan never got to see the German army’s view from start to finish. However, it is about how emotional people were when they first watched Titanic, Saving Private Ryan, or the Green Mile. It does not need development, like helping humans have difficulties in the middle of the road.
For it to be easy to understand, it is necessary to have a scenario. A pilot sacrifices his last fuel where at the end, the mole makes it home, but the air ends up reversed. To protect the evacuation, he had to calculate the number of minutes the Spitfire ran out of gas. The altruism of the army’s fear also no longer needed a central conflict where the intruders were in the British army. A dog tag is in one of the French soldiers in the first place and just thinks about playing the victim and tiring perpetrator. Hacksaw Ridge and biographical films about war as well offer “exaggerated” heroism. They always associate courage with kindness, resentment, and cowardice to gain just the necessary empathy.
Another instance of how heroism plays differently is the film Saving Private Ryan, directed by Steven Spielberg. At first, we didn’t know who this person was. What is clear, we only know that they are soldiers, and they are trying to win the war. However, it plays back again when we find out who Tom Hanks and the other characters are at the end of the film. In the specific scene as well, they find German soldiers killing one of their friends. By the time they win him over, Hanks spares his life to return to his side. This will make them no more than human and no longer have to think about their conscience. Although biased too, it worked well. Matt Damon’s character at the end, where he improvises, tells the story that his time with his siblings brings out irony, pity, and sadness at the same time.
In the end, the audience no longer needed a story about relationships, forgiveness, reality, and gifts. It is just about humans and Nolan giving a small space, not even space whatsoever, in focusing on a development or arc. He only focuses on showing a “terror” of how the event is. This is also working in Elem Klimov’s Come and See. At the end of the film, the protagonist shoots a photo of Adolf Hitler while grudge and anger fill him as seen in the backward history line from being the Third Reich to a baby. It might be the point, and the main message from Dunkirk is also exploiting war films in general that have implicit messages about idolizing history and events.
Kubrickian also became a cited for Christopher Nolan himself. Wanting to become a distinctive trademark, there is less in attracting audiences because they rely more on stories to draw a feeling. Nolan combines his films with a minimalist plot like 2001: a Space Odyssey, the Heart of Darkness feeling in Full Metal Jacket, and the multi-interpretation of the Shining too. Kubrick and Nolan describe a goal as a creator, a non-verbal experience if you think of a film as a work of music, poetry, or feelings. Nolan imitates the best piece of one of the main influences where stories without expressions are more directly connected to the audience. It is basically a show-don’t-tell method.
The Black and White of Drywall
The dynamic between Kubrick and Nolan as a poet for the mainstream audience associates their paintings using storytelling. Tom van der Linden, or well-known as Like Stories of Old, re-edited Dunkirk into a black and white movie. He seems to tell you that old classic films have inspired Nolan’s films besides Kubrick. For a specific part, the visual or painters generally convey poetry in an associative way. Still, it is challenging to transform it into a film. Tarkovsky also explains poetic cinema as avant-garde or art cinema in which images become an opposed to narrative cinema. Regardless of the subjective view from the term itself and being an ironic way and a misconception in evaluating film as art, this dynamic contains gaps with large and small holes like drywall.
For Nolan, Dunkirk doesn’t want to be a deconstructing war film about blood, physical wounds, and all aspects of the genre in general. He only wanted to provide an experience where the intensity was the purpose of which. Nolan’s perspective will make Dunkirk as not as a typical war film. There is no romance and soldiers where they tell stories in the middle of a campfire, confide in each other, or miss their hometown. So far, it is one of the minimalist Nolan films yet to be one of his best films. This decision became critical when he described a real war atmosphere. It is an accomplishment of craftsmanship in terms of cinematic engineering, no doubt, but sincere and distancing in delivering messages.
- Grob‐Fitzgibbon, B. (2005). What is terrorism? Redefining a phenomenon in time of war. Peace & Change, 30(2), 231-246.
- Kinney, T. J. (2018). Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk as Film & History. Mise-en-scène| The Journal of Film & Visual Narration, 3(2).
- Linden, T. (2017). Dunkirk re-edited as a Silent Film – The Power of Visual Storytelling. Like Stories of Old | YouTube.