The Power of Survival

Film review: Dunkirk (Director: Christopher Nolan)

By Sascha Krieger

What a beginning: a few soldiers are roaming a deserted street, peep into windows, look at the fliers sailing down from a peaceful sky. Suddenly a shot. One of the soldiers collapses. They start running. More shots. One by one they fall. With one exception: a very young soldier jumping over a fence, running until he reaches a beach. Vast. Full of people waiting. Waiting to be rescued from this deadly prison the town has become. This is how Dunkirk opens, Christopher Nolan’s film about one of the turning points of the Second World War. When after being stranded in the northern French town of Dunkirk, completely surrounded by German troops closing in, 350,000 mostly British soldiers were evacuated, this giving Britain the basis to continue and eventually win the war. A miracle many call it.

In Christopher Nolan’s eyes it is mostly one thing:  a stubborn fight for survival. The master storyteller he is, Noland approaches the story from two angles. One is abstract: he writes three separate chapters, focussing on the three main locations of this battle that wasn’t one – land, sea and air. On the land, thousands of soldiers, represented by the young man we encounter at the beginning and two fellow soldiers joining him along the way, wait and struggle for a way to leave. On the sea, an aging man and his son, assisted by a local boy, join the fleet of hundred of small civilian boats picking up soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk. and in the air, three, later two, in the end one Spitfire pilots are fighting the German fighter planes attacking the airing soldiers and the ships taking them to safety. The film changes back and forth between the three planes of survival, creating an abstract panorama enhanced by an elaborate time structure that fragments timeframes and repeats key points in the plot (if that’s what you want to call it) from varying perspectives. What in one instance is the main action, a bitter personal fight to stay alive is in its next iteration barely a footnote. The arbitrariness of war in a nutshell.

The second narrative level is one of utmost immediacy. The camera is painfully close to the characters who remain sketches. We don’t know their backstories, hardly even their names. We’re not told what they’ve suffered through to get to this point. All the viewer does is be a witness to their struggle to survive. There is no heroic pathos, death is just an everyday occurrence. The idyllic peace of the first few seconds and the ensuing carnage are the same thing, experienced by the young soldier (a tenderly stubborn and heroically stoical Fionn Whitehead) in the same way. There is no room for despair or hope, for great plans or emotional outburst, there’s only one thing: pure, unmitigated survival. There is an abundance of haunting scenes: when the protagonist and another soldier pick up a wounded soldier and run to carry him on the waiting ship hoping to get a ride on it, too, when they fight their way through the masses of soldier, desperate, yet in solidarity, when they just make it but are thrown off the ship after delivering their charge, as matter-of-factly as everything else, it is almost unbearable to watch the futility of this struggle. Similarly, there are several instances in which water close in on trapped soldiers, who are trying to find the surface and another shot at life. Some make it, others struggle until we just see their hand going limp. Another life gone. Just like that.. Or the attacks on the soldiers on the beach and piers: they lie town to find a little protection and when they get up again some don’t. It’s that simple. Life or death.

Very few words are spoken throughout the film. The pilots communicate, there is even an argument on the boat between the owner and a shellshocked soldier they pick up in the middle of the sea but mostly words are wasted when humanity is stripped down to bare essentials. Nolan doesn’t narrate war, he doesn’t philosophise about it, he doesn’t explain or defend, he doesn’t even tell stories. What Dunkirk aims at is coming as close to the actual experience of war, of the lottery of life and death, as possible. So we don’t get well-rounded characters but mostly young souls just trying to stay alive. Their stubbornness speaks, their unbent bodies, their defiant eyes. They speak of life. Nothing more. Apart from Whitehead, pop star Harry Styles is particularly impressive as his slightly more outgoing, desperate, aggressive companion, as is sad-eyed French soldier posing as a British recruit to get out Aneurin Barnard. Characterisation and acting is minimalistic (who could be better suited for this than Oscar winner Mark Rylance as the civilian vessel’s unperturbable skipper) and for this reason require even more precision which the fine-tuned cast provides.

If the evacuation was a miracle, this film is, too. A sprawling panorama as well as a highly intimate piece, restless and cold in its imagery, painfully close and chillingly distant at the same time, it eschews all rules of storytelling. No real plot, not development, no conflict, not characters.  It’s almost a documentary as well as poem, given rhythm by Hans Zimmer’s mesmerizing and surprisingly subtle score. Dunkirk is nothing more than just a plain, matter-of-fact portrait of survival.The most powerful force in humanity. Which breeds that other one: hope. That leads to unassuming, natural heroism. A milestone, a masterpiece, an earthshatteringly moving cry for life.

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