Cinematically speaking, Christopher Nolan ‘s Dunkirk is indeed, thematically and cinematographically, a masterpiece from the Master whose multi-layered and nuanced meanings would be dissected forever and would motivate many moviemakers, writes Sushil Kumar.
It is almost a movie monograph on motivation of men caught in war- instinct for survival at individual and group level.
Why it is a masterpiece? The reasons are: (i) movie is phenomenal as it posits a philosophical perspective, portrayed pictorially, on a universal existential urge to survive without war if possible, and during/ within war. What separates it from other war films, is shunning of moralistic high-ground, value judgements and taking sides and that’s totally a new territory for a cinematic medium. (ii) unlike most war films, the reliance of spoken words (minimal dialogues and near perfect editing in Sergei Eisenstein tradition) to convey meanings and the message to mankind is exceptional, as film accepts that man’s understanding of world varies if interpreted with words/language (Wittgenstein stated that without words, we would understand the reality differently). (iii) the film depicts a universal human experience , irrespective of country, characters or culture- the inevitability and brutality of war and instinctive revulsion on direct experience ( in eastern tradition we have Ashoka of Kalinga undergoing transformations and proclaiming pacifism much like Japan did after World War II though film doesn’t dwell on this development ) (iv) it’s a feature film but the tale is narrated in documentary style and though filmed in realism feel , the performers are paid actors (v) it is virtually a treatise on dehumanization of man during prolonged war not conveyed in spoken words ; in visual format, the film speaks eloquently about the actual horrors in theatres of war despite claims of higher causes and lofty ideals/goals. (vi) the film of ninety five minutes encapsulates endless metaphysical meanings conveyed in metaphors, allegories, allusions and symbols and it will take some time to pass before their links and they are understood fully – as unravelling them all would require a vast landscapic vision with a capacity to connect the disparate elements (vii)What is wonderful and interesting is that film has no final statements or conclusions to make and allows each viewer to take home what s/he him/her-self constitutes. (viii) the film is wonderful depiction of human dilemmas – of how a man can find himself in war not of his choosing even if one chose to join an army on patriotic fervour (ix) the film depicts that the big wars are basically fought simultaneously at group and individual planes and both can play out contradictorily with conflicting consequences.
Let us now consider some other equally important elements of the film.
The beauty of film is that it depicts an actual historical occurrence virtually like a replay on rewind mode of an actual event that occurred 77 years ago (please see the real images – on internet- of long lines of soldiers waiting for evacuation and black clouds rising on the horizon). However, within the bigger picture of evacuation of a mass of humanity (about 400,000 men) the film still tell tells you a story of different destinies playing at individual and group level with entire range of emotions- of fear, friendship, comradery, leadership, patriotism, suspicion, misunderstanding, redemption, longing, expectation and much more.
Again, unlike most films, the film’s story and drama is not depicted as progressing linearly. In fact, the story line covers several stories running in parallel : one involving trials and tribulations involved in evacuation of soldiers stuck on sea shore , ship-decks and sea water with Damocles sword of death hanging overhead ; another line shows fading faith in being rescued and the trials and tribulations while attempting to escape without by few soldiers ; another plot line depicts turns and twists involved in protracted air combat of fighter jets ; and lastly a story of brave effort of civilian population responding to call of aid to military . All these parallel plot lines combine to show how a superhuman effort was mounted on air, ground and sea to evacuate stranded men from Dunkirk to British coast across the English Channel. Nolan must be applauded for fusing all the elements into a difficult storyline seamlessly and also to take the audience in parallel journey with hope and hopelessness thrown in equal measure and it’s only with the assurance of factual history that a viewer can watch the film some comfort.
Through the depiction of these parallel plot lines, the film alludes to real life situational experiences where one line of players either run down the role of the other or are unaware of the positive role the other players actually played in their lives. This is exemplified with one character exasperatedly uttering ‘where is the Air Force ‘when faced bombardment, without knowing the heroic parallel efforts of air force pilots that actually saved their lives. Just because one doesn’t see, one can’t say that the others left them stranded. This is also a universal human experience when one wants to blame others while facing a difficult situation.
The film attempts to depict a human situation of men caught in a war and history is full of them. Film may be taking an illustrative case to understand some aspects. This always involves multiple mental interpretations much like a research reduced recorded in words. We also know that the actual events and thoughts do not develop or progress in a linear fashion. For this reason, the film resorts to narrating events and stories in parallel – much like events and ideas criss crossing with no clear lines for comprehension and conclusion or final truths.
The film covers the chaotic confusion in the mammoth evacuation through depiction of drama in the parallel plot lines and when these lines end, history was created to record one of the most successful evacuation (of nearly four hundred thousand men) to complete a super story of saving lives, with brave civilian cooperation.
The film also alludes to the Western’s mind famous maxim -that it’s better to lose a battle to win a war. In fact, the Allies lost, psychologically at Dunkirk, to retreat, consolidate and prepare for the Battle of Britain leading to eventual victory in the World War II. Not only that, after four years, the Allies came back to replay the assault in reverse by landing at Normandy coast to change the course of war. This also shows that no matter how hopeless was the situation at Dunkirk, an army and a country can recover and come back much stronger. Of course, film makes no direct comment on this.
In history of wars, the victory is measured in decimation of men, be it World War I or II. As a natural corollary, the contrasting measure should also be saving lives of men and for that reason, Dunkirk survives as a super story of efforts made to save stranded men in a hopeless situation, of surviving and then coming back to fight another day and then to win the war. If measure is taken as loss of equipment and machinery, then Dunkirk will go down as one of the worst stories where even the enemy was surprised to find massive abandonment of huge equipment and machinery. It also alludes to the living maxim – that true measure of all things is man himself and that man is much larger than his creation; this case proved that if man survived, the machinery and equipment could always be made again by man (including improvements in tank technology and the atomic bomb) and war fought.
Just for comparison, take two of India’s famous war films namely Haqueeqat and Border -one contextualized on a loss and another on victory, yet both were made on similar lines of exceptional valour of defense forces and patriotism shown by individual soldiers. Though primarily war films, they had soldiers ruminating and reminiscing on their love or family lives. In contrast, Dunkirk does not ride on any platitudes praising patriotism. Perhaps, Nolan deliberately chose this subject in the current xenophobic times to show that all wars have multidimensional reality and it’s difficult to draw any final conclusions while witnessing the actual combat. The film’s main characters are not given the benefit of any characterization and merely are seen as players acting out their dilemmas and decisions. Another wonderful aspect of the film is that it doesn’t comment on victory or loss of the situation; it merely dwells on human desire to return to the comforts of one’s home and familiar corners (recall the shot when the soldier immediately folds up on a train seat on way to home).
Dunkirk also alludes to an eternal Western symbolism of David and Goliath, where in front of imminent annihilation by an enemy, flotilla of small civilian boats appears on the horizon giving hope (writ large on face of Naval commander Bolton played by Branagh) and supplementing army’s effort ending in saving lives of soldiers. It also alludes to Noah’s Ark symbolism of boat saving humanity in some way.
Film beautifully depicts the divergent dilemmas of men entering a war- those who enter on patriotism streak don’t know what it entails (as films like American Sniper and Hurt Locker show) but can’t return; and those in it are repulsed by its sheer brutality and dehumanization and want to escape at individual level, but are constrained by group dynamics deriding open cowardice. Its’ a situation of human dilemma and is beautifully captured without much verbosity, usually associated with films of such genre.
Film will stand out for two exceptional efforts – its cinematography and musical score; former beautifully captures the vastness and merger, at times, of the horizon, sea, ground and space through aerial shot making (made possible through Wi Max). The musical score is haunting and builds up the human dilemmas nicely and makes up for absence of dialogues.
The director extracts exceptional performances from Mark Rylance, Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard specially from Whitehead and Barnard, their innocent faces capture the will to return from the war. Tom Hardy is recognizable after he comes off the plane but does convey the will of the Royal Air Force to fight. Director uses t extreme close ups and natural lighting of faces- though diffused to prevent strong shadows.
The film has several allusions to tide that can save lives and in a way is a nice revisit of a dialogue mouthed by Tom Hanks in Castaway, when he said sentimentally, while recollecting his struggle to survive on an island – one doesn’t know what next tide will bring! The reference to a tide in this film also alludes to ever existing different perceptions of three wings in a war effort – air, infantry and army and that all must work in harmony and in coordination if war effort is to succeed. In a way, film acknowledges how inevitably, in a war situation, the coordination issues always pose a challenge. As with most, even this part is obliquely referred.
The film highlights contradictions in man’s psychological apparatus, of oscillating between a life and a death wish- first at individual and then at group/societal level with self-preservation being the overriding motivation. The film highlights man’s strange survival story- first he fights to survive and then driven by lofty principles of patriotism joins other to fight to survive over others.
The film highlights the Zen principle of man’s wish to come back home specially when facing existential dilemmas experienced in a war. All wars universally show how men leave their hearths and homes to go to war and while on it, long to return home. This periodic waning of will and return has been a constant leitmotif of armies of Alexander, Napoleon, Hitler etc. (remember invasion of India by Alexander and on Russia by Hitler and Napoleon).
Film has captured some haunting images ever present in all wars- the rising smoke on distant horizon to become black clouds rising in the sky- symbolism of smokescreen that hides the brutal horrors and reality of war and if seen from the top with transcendental view these merge with natural cloud cover, clouding our vision and horrors of war.
Film also shows how an infantry formation can march on with a will to wage war on the waiting enemy; however, if confronted with the threat of a wipeout by that enemy, its members turn their wrath on each other, much like films like Platoon and others have portrayed.
The film has some strong symbolism about inevitable disillusion with wars and in this the shot of soldier, diving underwater and though in the soundlessness of of sea water, still seeks to cover both ears with hands to block out sights and sounds of destruction .At individual level, the reactions are symbolically shown , in cravings to return to the comforts of the home with no concern for goings on in the war, in shots of an individual walking into sea waves to commit suicide and drown to death . This aspect is also shown in mental meltdown of soldiers when they suspect, accuse and attack each other while attempting to evacuate. The film also touches about man’s constant need to have both love and a hate object and finding hate object as soldiers find when they find a French soldier amongst their midst even though France is fighting on the side of Allies.
The film also highlights how a decision is differentially determined with benefit of a historical hindsight- the judgement varies between Dunkirk being labelled as a defeat of the Allies and a strategic retreat to regroup and fight with renewed vigour and win, as Allies eventually did. The film avoids any comment about judging the decision to evacuate. We must also remember that it’s the victors whose version is taken a historical fact and is recorded as history. The world hardly reads about German historiography on the two World Wars. Perhaps, it would be some centuries later that men will read both versions of the World Wars as they do now about the Roman empire. One needs distance for a balanced judgement
The film beautifully narrates an individual’s instinct for redemption in life when a young man jumps on to boat to participate in a war and ruminates about his standing in the school and how an accidental death during evacuation, in fact, bestows a heroic status in school and enters the hallowed gallery of gallant gentlemen. Films beautifully comments how heroism is needed to sustain the myth of war and better if the heroic act is done by an ordinary person.
One must credit Nolan that the film, unlike recent run of successful Hollywood films including his own Inception, shuns resorting to CGI creations on screen and creates realism feel by shooting real objects and crowds that would have taken monumental effort and enterprise. The film also avoids direct depiction of blood and gore- without which war films haven’t been made – one must again applaud Nolan’s creativity.
Cinematically speaking, at one level, the film can be taken as a trailer of an actual war – comparable to usual two minutes’ trailers and teasers that show montages of a full feature film. This film can be taken as trailer meant to stimulate one to look at a historical fact of war waged both in minds and fields.
Again, the film breaks fresh ground in showing no sequences involving women and children as if to allude that wars are waged by machinations of men only and that women and children are unwilling victims of collateral damage. For this reason, perhaps, the film doesn’t depict their dilemmas and destiny.
The film basically depicts the presence of overriding principle of Hope that governs happenings at individual and group level. The film displays that at individual level, one is hoping to be rescued by someone else or make an individual effort in the hope of rescuing himself. The film merely narrates the efforts made by the individuals, at a unit l or at soldier level. Unlike other war films, it doesn’t rely on excessive sentimentality conveyed through memory recall or regression to love life or family life and other longings of characters. The film has adopted the mode of merely showing the act of evacuation without uttering any judgement/s.
The overriding principle of hope driving efforts at war is exemplified in constant effort made by the commander on the deck refusing to leave till the last man, including soldiers of Allied forces, is saved and how he looks with moist eyes on the horizon when help comes and hope of saving men is fulfilled.
Unlike other war films like Saving Private Ryan and others, this World War film depicts no bombed out towns with complete destruction of buildings or other infrastructure as the Director wanted to tell a story about human dilemmas specially when the war was just beginning. Moreover, that would have taken the focus away from the minute to minute survival attempts of a few individuals.
It’s a matter of fact film about a historical fact involving a story telling of bare facts and laid down before you without any preachings, pontifications, homilies either for or against. And that’s a tough task for a cinematic medium known for narration with differential interpretation and value judgements. To some, the film would come across as lacking any statement but then film is actually that- a depiction of a historical fact without expressing any opinion. To some, the film would be boring much like when one reads mere facts in history. None reads books with only bare facts or mere narration of date /details of a historical event. Nolan has attempted something similar in this film – he leaves you only with images or visual recording, of struggles of survival of some individuals and a group, to judge the happenings on your own. Most stories would state facts that so many numbers died; Nolan depicts the drama and dilemmas at individual level without dwelling deeply to the larger event of evacuation as that doesn’t tell the whole story for humanity to learn from.
It’s a war film not in the category of focusing on futility of famous wars in the sense of what is depicted in classic novel like War and Peace of Leo Tolstoy, whose canvas and coverage is very vast and filled with characters, their characterization, conflicts, country links etc.
All war films end up touching the moral fibre by arguing for one side standing for the right against the wrong. Dunkirk doesn’t depict or utter any opinion or offer such lofty judgements. The dialogues are minimal and mostly monosyllabic and I think only about five percent of the film has them. Only once, the right and wrong is obliquely broached, when a silent soldier is suspected to be spy. In fact, even in that part, this issue arises as a byproduct while highlighting man’s basic instinct of survival, specially when all hope seems lost for physically surviving. Infact, Dunkirk depicts man’s instinctive drive to live and survive at individual level first and this is best shown in several individuals seeking to escape by individual efforts when surviving through naval evacuation seems hopeless. Dunkirk also depicts man’s desire to join a bigger cause, to respond to a call to save humanity, if he feels that even he wouldn’t survive if he doesn’t join in; that explains the valiant effort made by civilians to supplement the defense forces’ effort to evacuate, their effort emboldened by belief of British superiority over sea and air. Rarely would they have joined if it was a sure suicidal mission of being bombed out, though the film doesn’t touch that aspect. The larger cause even in Dunkirk was the patriotism and nationalism and in history whole population has fought when their nation’s survival is threatened (in current times think of Israel and Palestine).
Film doesn’t tread the territory of the usual blame game that ascribes full fault with the other who also happens to be the loser. In fact, but for the pictorial symbol on a German plane, the film seeks to stand on the moral high ground that states there is no other in any battle for humanity and that there are no winners or losers in a war. Both sides end up on the losing side – one way or the other.
This just one interpretation of an Indian seeing this truly class film in north eastern State of Tripura. There would be endless other interpretations that would come out. Wait for them.
One suggestion- please don’t advise a non-serious film watcher to see this film lest he comes back cursing you.