Dunkirk: Christopher Nolan Understands the Cinematic Experience

Dunkirk’s 1 hour and 46 minutes run time is significantly shorter than director Christopher Nolan’s other films. The Dark Knight trilogy, The Prestige (2006) and Interstellar (2014) are epics that all run for over two hours. Despite the shorter duration, the intense tone of Dunkirk makes it feel just as long. Dunkirk is not your typical war movie. There are no buff super soldiers who wipe out large amounts of enemy forces and save the day. It is still a tale about survival, but it is much more focused on the everyday soldier of World War II who just wanted to get home. Nolan wants to create as much empathy in the viewer as possible. In doing so he demonstrates that he understands the benefits of the cinematic experience.

To appreciate the tone of the film, you’re going to need a brief history lesson on the evacuation at Dunkirk. In 1940, Allied forces, especially the British, French and Belgians, realised that there was nothing they could do about Nazi Germany taking over France. Consequently, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered an evacuation from Dunkirk, on the French coast. Christopher Nolan’s film is about the evacuation, featuring characters from all parts of evacuation – infantry soldiers, air force pilots and citizen boats sent to rescue soldiers because warships were too easy for the Germans to spot.

Nolan wanted to capture the evacuation at Dunkirk from the eyes of the everyday soldier who was just trying to survive the retreat. The tone of the film is one of desperation and survival. Nolan clearly wanted to create a sense of empathy between the viewer and the characters on screen. This is not a new concept for films, but as I said earlier, Nolan understands what makes the cinematic experience so great: it appeals to our visual and auditory senses.

The one word I used to describe the film when I left the cinema was “intense”. Dunkirk keeps you uncomfortable and on the edge of your seat for most of the experience. While the close-ups of the protagonists struggling to prevent themselves from drowning at sea and long establishing shots of the dire situation create powerful images, it’s the film’s musical score and terrific sound design that solidify Nolan’s position as a cinematic master.

Throughout Dunkirk, a high-tempo score (composed by the legendary Hans Zimmer) accompanies the on-screen images. The two most common compositions I remember are called The Mole and Supermarine. The Mole can be heard in most of the trailers, it’s the track with the constant ticking noise towards the end. As the film progress, it sounds like the score becomes louder and somewhat uncomfortable.

This is especially true of the track Supermarine. A Vox video I found while researching this piece explains the score perfectly: “an overwhelming orchestra that seems like it’s rising higher and higher, but never actually does”. Much like the film’s characters, the viewer waits for a break that never comes.

There’s no better way to create a sense of empathy with the viewer. The film’s largely silent protagonists continually transition from one bad situation to another, never given a break from their terrible circumstances or impending German air, land and sea attacks. There’s never a rest for the protagonists, so why should the viewer get a rest. It’s such a subtle addition that I didn’t notice it was happening until one scene towards the end of the film when the score is silenced. Pardon the cliché, but the silence is peaceful. It’s a very symbolic moment, providing a huge relief for the viewer.

Side bar: The Vox video that I just referenced explains that the technique Nolan and Zimmer use is called a Shepard Tone, several tones, separated by an octave, on top of each other. This makes the tracks sound like they are increasing in volume, even though they are not. Take a few minutes to watch the video, it explains the concept a lot better.

Dunkirk’s sound effects further enhance the experience. Dunkirk is a loud film. Even in a normal cinema – without the louder sound produced for cinemas like Xtremescreen or Vmax – every explosion from dropped bombs and submarine torpedoes, and every bullet shot from the fighter planes and infantry rifles is loud. Uncomfortably loud. It wasn’t uncommon to see other moviegoers jump in their seats from the unexpected explosions or bullet shots. Just like the soldiers, you’re never expecting an explosion or gunshot when it occurs.

It’s easy to imagine the terror the soldiers would have felt, not knowing if the next bomb or gun-shot would take their life. This is yet another example of Nolan creating more intimacy and empathy between the people on the screen and those looking at the screen.

Dunkirk screen 2
Source: Warner Bros. Pictures/ YouTube

Dunkirk is not the first film where Christopher Nolan has used sound design to great effect. I first fell in love with Nolan from his Dark Knight trilogy. The second film, The Dark Knight (2008), is my favourite film of all time (but that’s a story for another time). One of my favourite scenes from The Dark Knight is when Harvey Dent is being transported to prison because he wants everyone to think he is Batman.

The whole scene, from the moment he leaves in the police van, to the moment Jim Gordon reappears and arrests The Joker, plays out without a backing track; only diegetic sound can be heard. Panicked chatter between police guards, The Joker mumbling, the hum of the Batmobile, RPG explosions, sub-machine gun clips being unloaded on police vehicles. It’s a terrific scene, and is more effective because of the lack of a backing track.

The other memorable Nolan scene that comes to mind is in Interstellar when the shuttle launches into space. The sound of the thrusters kicking in and launching the shuttle was so loud that it vibrated the floor under my seat. Suddenly, I was in the shuttle with the crew, heading into space.

With streaming services like Netflix and the ease of illegally obtaining new release films, the cinema experience is under threat. However, directors like Christopher Nolan are giving film fans a reason to visit their local cinema. I believe the auditory experience that Dunkirk provided me in a movie theatre cannot be replicated properly from a home environment (unless you’ve got a world class home theatre system).

Dunkirk solidified what I’ve felt about Christopher Nolan for a while now: he understands the benefits of the cinematic experience. Films are best when the viewer’s experience is a visual and auditory one. Dunkirk is a masterclass in both.

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