Dunkirk and The Sacred Humanism of Christopher Nolan

Art work by Danielle Pajak Illustrations.

“You can almost see it from here.”

“What?”

“Home.”

As what I have come to expect from a Nolan film, Dunkirk is an entirely unique and profound experience. Although I’m not a war or history buff, Nolan’s cinematic portrait of the struggle and survival of the men at Dunkirk is deeply moving and beautiful to behold. I could only describe the feeling as being like looking upon a painting of one of the Masters. When studying a work of art from Rembrandt, Carvaggio, El Greco or Da Vinci, what you notice is the meticulous and intentional care in how they apply their brushstrokes, how the light and shadows create mood and atmosphere, and how they capture depth and meaning in what they choose to depict. It is the same while watching a Nolan film, and it was most certainly the case for Dunkirk.

It is his most visual film to date. Sparse in dialogue, the emotions and feelings that it evokes come mostly from the visuals — in what he chooses to show us and not show us, because both are equally important. Like for example, I loved how we never see the faces of the enemy. Even at the end with the capture of the pilot, they are just blurred shadows moving against the backdrop of a red sunset. This deliberate hiddenness conveys further the sense of ominous dread, with the enemy harassing them and the promise of death from all sides. There is also another reason why I think he chose to do this, of which I’ll come to in a moment.

In any case, Dunkirk is undoubtedly a masterpiece of filmmaking, with such a sense of sacredness underneath the desperation and horror. That was what struck me most, that love towards humanity and the sublimity of perseverance. The tension is extreme, to be sure. Nolan understands how to immerse his audience in any mood, and his creative and dexterous use of the timeline structure of the battle was done in a way only Nolan could do, but it was really the heart of the film that struck me first. I had heard that one of the main lines of criticism for this film was the lack of emotional investment in the characters and the events, yet I had quite the opposite reaction. I felt deeply for the characters and their predicament. I loved every one of the mini storylines, each bringing their own powerful emphasis on the human experience during war.

Straight away from the opening sequence where we meet our soulful main protagonist, I was drawn into their struggle to survive and get home. Probably my favorite storyline being the family on the boat, with what happens to George because of Cillian Murphy’s character. It was so incredibly sad, but real and terrible — a heartrending portrait of the casualties of war — which aren’t always on the battlefield and those killed aren’t always soldiers. Not that I would know by any personal experience, but simply from an artistic point of view, I think it had a lot to say.

Yet each story and character had its own piece to say, and it spoke true. I had read that Nolan called this film a “survival story”, and not a war film, and I believe that’s exactly what this film is. Interestingly, I see some of the same themes carrying over from Interstellar. Dylan Thomas’ poem which had such a pivotal place in that film, could have easily been used for Dunkirk! “Do not go gentle into that good night…” — is precisely the feeling you get as you watch this film, and are echoed in the words of Churchill by the end, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!’ — “Rage, rage against the dying of the light!” Nolan’s humanism is such a strong theme of his films, and made even more so through his rendering of this miraculous historical event. And this is where things get really interesting.

You see in all my reading of the criticisms leveled against Nolan’s film, there is actually one piece of criticism that is strangely absent from any review that I’ve read, and it is one that I think is key in understanding why Nolan chose to tell Dunkirk as he did. While it was certainly miraculous that the English people rallied together to rescue the men trapped upon those shores, it wasn’t the only event that happened that day nor technically the most miraculous. There were actually a list of unexplained events that occurred which allowed the rescue attempt to even happen and succeed at all!

  • One: The timing of very poor weather conditions, which prevented much of the German approach from the air. And there was fog that developed between the Germans and the Allies which helped in obscuring them as well.
  • Two: Despite this turbulent weather all around them, somehow the beaches were quite calm, and the English Channel remained strangely still, which even on days of pleasant weather was very unusual! This enabled the swift and speedy passage of the civilian boats, who would not have handled well in extreme conditions otherwise.
  • Three: The mysterious decision that came from Hitler to stop the German advancement, despite having the Allies surrounded and at his mercy — the reasoning of which is still being discussed and researched today!

This raises a question, why did Nolan choose not to highlight any of these crucial facts? And in answering it, we see exactly what Nolan does so well (and what I love about him the most) — the creation of art from ideas themselves.

There are themes that he uses consistently in all of his movies which all stem from his secular humanistic worldview. As I mentioned, Interstellar shares this theme strongly with Dunkirk, as it was in that film that the bulk beings of the higher dimension are the evolved humanity which used the tesseract to save humanity in its past. As Cooper says,But they didn’t bring us here at all. We brought ourselves. Interstellar was about Mankind saving itself, about human conquest over death, and the glory of humanity as an entity onto itself — with its one chief and noble feature being Love. In the same way, Nolan molds the events of Dunkirk through this lens. He intentionally strips everything down to a very narrow focus. The isolated, empty landscapes and shots, the lack of gore and blood, the focus on survival rather than the politics of the war — all these aspects distill the story down to its most basic idea: of people struggling together to overcome insurmountable odds, of people risking their lives so that others may come home —

Mankind’s love for Mankind.

This is Nolan’s divinity.

This is why I believe he never lets us see the face of the enemy, even calling them “The Enemy” in the opening title cards — not the Germans. He doesn’t name them, and he doesn’t put a human face to them. This keeps any hostile connotation associated with the concept of humanity from being expressed in this film, which seeks to showcase the warm, brave and heroic human spirit of the English and French that day.

And so, for this reason, no mention of the strange occurrences of the weather are brought into the story either, because even during that time the English associated those miracles as an act of God. There was a National Day of Prayer on May 26th, just before all those anomalies occurred, and after Dunkirk, a Day of National Thanksgiving. Whatever you may believe about what had happened that day, it is clear what the English believed. It was then very crucial for Nolan’s controlled narrative to not mention even an implied “higher power” gave rescue that day.

This attention to themes is also shown in the characters and their stories as well, where we see this ideal portrayal of humanity’s loves towards one another:

  • Peter and his father both show mercy on Cillian Murphy’s character by not burdening him with George’s death.
  • Peter gets George’s name in the newspaper as one of the heroes at Dunkirk.
  • Our protagonist stands up for the poor Frenchman during the scene with the soldiers trying to kick him off the sinking boat.
  • Commander Bolton selflessly stays back for the French.

All these moments and elements are crafted meticulously from the palette of Nolan’s ideas, and he paints a compelling picture of humanity, with all its frailties and all its strengths, with the absolute reverence of a Michelangelo. For Nolan understands the medium of ideas as deftly as a sculpture understands the stone, especially when being expressed through the visual language of film, and how an idea can become powerful and resilient within a story. So that in any one of his films, whether he is dealing with black holes or historical events, you must always ask yourself:

“Are you watching closely?”

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