Set to the backdrop of Operation Dynamo, the real-life evacuation of British troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, director Christopher Nolan delivers his masterpiece in narrative design and visual storytelling.


i. The Mole

The Allied perimeter around Dunkirk beach is shrinking and all Tommy and almost 400.000 of his fellow British soldier want, is to go home. But Germany has the supremacy. On land, as French forces struggle to keep them at bay, at sea, where British destroyers bound to pick up the trapped soldiers are sunk every hour, and in the air, leaving these men vulnerable during their long wait for rescue. In the aftermath of such an aerial raid, he and another young soldier manage to sneak their way on board one the leaving ships. But their way home is far from over, as a torpedo attack leaves them stranded once again on the beaches.

ii. At Sea

Mr. Dawson, his son Peter and their teenage friend George are leaving Dorset for Dunkirk. The Royal Navy is commandeering private boats to participate in the evacuation. But rather than letting them take over his yacht, Dawson decides to pilot the vessel himself. On their way across the channel they pick up a British Army Sergeant, sole survivor of a torpedo attack on one of the ships that left Dunkirk two days ago. Despite the soldiers protest, the three stick with their mission. A few hours later they pick up Collins, a Spitfire pilot who has been shot down on his way to the beach to provide aerial support for the evacuation.

iii. In the Air

Royal Air Force pilots Fortis, Farrier, and Collins are en route to Dunkirk in three Supermarine Spitfires to cover the evacuation attempt from the skies. After Fortis crashes into the water, following a skirmish with two German Messerschmitts Farrier and Collins continue their flight towards the beach, even though Farrier’s fuel gauge is malfunctioning. During their next encounter, Collins is forced to ditch in the water. After which he is narrowly picked up by Dawson, whereupon he choses to assist them on their way to Dunkirk.

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Dunkirk is a masterpiece. I just wanted to get that out of the way first. And anything negative I might have to say about it should not distract from the fact, that I have rarely been more immersed, engaged, and tense during a film of this genre. It cannot be easy to convey the despair, the senselessness, and the horrors of war while still creating an engaging narrative. Black Hawk Down managed that, more than fifteen years ago. Since then, depictions of real-life events during wars have often been used as glorifications, mostly of the United States military while neglecting to critically asses these situations as a whole, 13 Hours – The Soldiers of Benghazi for example. Dunkirk takes a step forward, narrowing down from the bigger picture of World War II towards a single issue of this conflict. Not about defeating a clearly evil enemy, but the human decency to help those men who bravely fought and were defeated.
And while the movie starts at the mole on the beaches of Dunkirk, for me it was Mr. Dawson’s journey across the channel and fifteen year old George who said that he wanted to do something noteworthy, who took centre stage in this extraordinary film.

Personally, the movie could’ve used a little bit more exposition to set its characters and setting. The three way narrative design as confusing at first, as events depicted from the different points of view actually take place over different amounts of time. But the film revisits events from certain angles after the first act fairly regularly, whereupon the premisse becomes more clear and the story can be followed more easily. But most important is perhaps the sense of realism in every scene. Almost no CGI throughout the film. Everything on land was filmed on the beaches of Dunkirk, where they even rebuilt the old harbor mole. Original civillian vessels that took part in the evacuation made their way across the channel to participate in the movie. And the production team even managed to get their hands on two working Spitfire’s that were fitted with IMAX cameras, and were flown across the channel.

Christopher Nolan doesn’t need 180 minute blockbuster science-fiction to leave a lasting impression. He’s a director who can get closer than most and still give the audience a sense of the bigger picture. „Less is more“, „show, don’t tell“. He gets that. And 107 minutes are enough to get the viewers engaged in this tale of desperation and genuine heroism. I’m glad that he built himself a reputation with big-budget blockbusters that rake in hundreds of million dollars. But with this I feel, that I just might enjoy his work more if it’s like this. Tragic, yet hopeful stands Dunkirk’s story and this movie’s success as an example what a passion project can truly accomplish.

Beitragsbild: Kevin Wendlandt
Bilder: Warner Bros.