“Dunkirk” by Christopher Nolan – War and Disgrace [Review]

Dunkirk film


Title: “Dunkirk”

Release Date: 2017

Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy


“Dunkirk” is certainly an important picture by Christopher Nolan. It is not a showy cinematic illustration of a war episode, nor a pompous story about soldiers’ honor, but a deep and mature reinterpretation of history.

On the one hand, Nolan’s work is characterized by a certain consistency in terms of style, on the other hand it is characterized by a really wide range of themes. For the director’s cinematic images show reality from Victorian times in “The Prestige” (2006) to intergalactic travels in “Interstellar” (2014). “Dunkirk” seems to be all the more interesting against this background, depicting one of the episodes of World War II, namely Operation Dynamo, i.e. the evacuation of British troops from the French coast at the turn of May and June 1940. As a result of this undertaking over 338,000 English soldiers were saved.

“Dunkier” – the anti-heroism of war

The very choice of this event from the entire history of World War II is extremely significant. Nolan did not reach for the classic narration about the glory of the Allies victoriously defeating the Nazi troops, but focused on the weakest link of the war turmoil. Here we see whole crowds of soldiers who are not fighting the enemy, not attacking, not even firing a single shot – but fleeing the battlefield in increasing panic. Of course, the way the film portrays the dramatic events of that time does not put the stigma of cowardice on the characters. With almost surgical precision, Nolan dissects the war episode into its individual parts to show the peculiar anatomy of fear and the horror of war. However, it is impossible to get the impression that the director is arguing with the traditional narration about glory and victory.

Dunkirk movie review

The director’s clear distance from the classical historical message is emphasized by the method of portraying the characters. In fact, it is the collective protagonist that comes to the fore here, rather than individual soldiers. Although each of the three perspectives of the film’s story – air, water, and land – has a leading character, none of them stands out enough to be considered the main protagonist. Such a procedure causes the viewer not to fully identify with anyone, so he can maintain a rational judgment of the situation.

Of course, a border experience such as war brings out people’s dormant instincts, including the most primal survival instinct. Young boys thrown into a foreign land do not want to die (especially for someone else’s cause) and simply choose to survive. In the midst of all this, they are put to the test of their human dignity – some, like the British fighter pilot, will fight to the end risking their own lives, while others will try to save themselves at the cost of throwing away the encumbering ballast – a French soldier – from the lifeboat. As usual, war is a test of character for which one is never ready and whose outcome always remains unknown. Somewhere in the background lurks the stigma of soldier’s dishonor and Winston Churchill’s timeless words: “You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour and you will have war “.

“Dunkirk” – a time loop – the eternal return of things

“Dunkirk” is a movie that in terms of formal solutions refers to Nolan’s previous works. The non-linearity of the film story, characteristic for the director, comes to the fore. The land perspective shows the events of about one week (the infantry escaping from the Germans), the events at sea last one day (the evacuation of the soldiers by a civilian cutter), while the action in the air (the operation being secured by the British Air Force) lasts several hours. This solution was already used by Nolan in “Memento”.

Dunkirk film analysis

This time the transitions in time take place so dynamically that the viewer is somehow suspended in a time loop – between the past, the present and the future. The non-linear narration reflects the mechanisms of human memory; the past mixes and overlaps with the present. Thus at the level of time “Dunkirk” shows that Nolan is not interested in the textbook version of history, in which everything is arranged chronologically, but he wants to show the history reconstructed as it was – from the witnesses’ accounts. Nolan’s time loop also gives the film universalism. In a way, we are dealing here with the eternal return of things – something happens, and then we watch the same event once again, although from a different point of view.

“Dunkirk” – a faceless enemy and the allegory

An extremely interesting method of portraying the enemy seems to have a similar meaning. The Nazi invader never once shows his face. We don’t see any German soldiers in the movie. The Nazis are present only through anonymous, but extremely precise and inflicting heavy losses shots and a fighter with a characteristic black cross. The abandonment of giving the enemies specific features once again refers back to universalism. “Dunkirk” is therefore on some level an allegorical film, a film about the horrors of any war, but also a picture of modern times. After all, wasn’t Britain one of the guarantors of Ukraine’s independence? Is the West not turning its eyes away from Syria? Doesn’t the old truth that no one wants to die for a cause that is not their own come true as usual?

“Dunkirk” movie – a surrealistic dream

It can be said that “Dunkirk” balances on the border between a realistic, even reporter’s account of the war events and an unrealistic vision of the nightmare of war. There is no attempt to glorify human behavior, and the characters do not present the reasons for their actions in dialogues and monologues. Communication has been limited to the necessary minimum – orders, factual accounts of the adopted tactics (e.g. airmen) or dry statements of fact (conversations between commanders). Thanks to this, Nolan’s film acquires the quality of high probability. After all, there is no place for lofty hamletising in war, it is a time of tension and action.

Dunkirk 2017

On the other hand, from the first, strong opening scene of “Dunkirk” we enter a kind of unreal space of a nightmare. Here one is reminded of movies “Insomnia” or “Inception”. The landscapes of vast beaches in a blue glow, where soldiers line up in rows of candidates for evacuation, are reminiscent of surreal landscapes. Hans Zimmer’s hypnotic music and the ominous circling of a messerschmitt over the sea further enhance the dreamlike atmosphere. What’s more, the horror of the situation is made even more evident by panoramic shots of vast, paradise-like beaches. Contrary to expectations, nature does not bring respite here, and open space does not offer the desired freedom.

When the protagonist miraculously escapes from the labyrinth of the city, the viewer expects some kind of rest. In the meantime, Dantean scenes unfold by the sea. Every now and then an air raid takes place, decimating helpless soldiers, and ships with the red cross constantly sink under water. The viewer can almost feel the hopeless imprisonment of the allies, who are waiting for certain death with useless weapons in their hands. The characters lose all control over their lives, and fear marks the field of their every action. The irony of this situation is enhanced by the contrast between the scenes set in the sunshine of a seaside resort and the atmosphere of lurking doom.

“Dunkirk” – Nolan’s pacifist message

It seems extremely significant that next to a skilled airman (Tom Hardy), the biggest hero of the film is not any of the soldiers, but a middle-aged civilian (Mark Rylance), who thanks to his determination saves a large group of servicemen with his boat. He is the one who keeps a cool head in every situation and is the one who deserves a medal for bravery. The behavior of the rest is far from heroic. This does not mean that they are undignified, they are simply human. But does the film fully justify the escape from the French beaches?

Rather, “Dunkirk” is a film about the absurdity of any war. There are no winners in war, Nolan says, and no heroes. It’s really just a group of people pitted against each other trying to survive at all costs. The game is not about lofty values, and fighting the enemy is nothing more than desperately defending one’s own life.