BY ALEX AFFONSO
Dunkirk (Nolan, 2017) is widely considered an “anxiety-inducing” (Brown), “heart pounding” (Sharf), “edge-of-your-seat” (Chitwood) experience. This fear and tension shared by many viewers is a result of how Nolan constructed his film to be both realistic and immersive, to feel like “a window to a world that thrusts viewers into the middle of the combat” (Brown). This is achieved through the careful application and interplay of the cinematic elements of the movie—narrative structure, mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing, and sound—which are all geared towards giving viewers a glimpse of what it would feel like to be a part of the real events that took place between 26 May and 4 June 1940 at the beaches of Dunkirk.
Nolan offers this glimpse through four different perspectives: soldiers attempting to leave the beach, officers planning the evacuation, pilots protecting those on land and sea from enemy bombers, and civilians coming for the rescue. The film opens with the soldiers and the officers on the beach waiting to be evacuated, the pilots flying towards Dunkirk, and the civilians leaving England with their boats towards the French shores. We see the side of the soldiers through Tommy’s (Fionn Whitehead) perspective, who attempts to leave the beach through multiple ways. In the end, their salvation comes at the hands of the civilians who come to their rescue on their own private boats, which we see through Mr. Dawson’s (Mark Rylance) plotline. The officers, such as Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), are either giving orders or coming up with plans, and they all share a feeling of hopelessness until the civilians arrive. The pilots in the air, seen mostly through Farrier’s (Tom Hardy) point of view, are trying to protect first the military ships then the civilian boats from the aerial bombers. Out of the original three planes, two are brought down throughout the movie; only Farrier stays in the air until the end. The civilian boat, driven by Mr. Dawson, picks up two survivors on their way to the beach—a shivering soldier (Cillian Murphy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), one of the fallen pilots—until they come across a large, sinking ship during the climax of the movie and rescue dozens of soldiers. In short, through multiple storylines, Dunkirk traces the story of the English soldiers as they struggle to survive and return home, and the film ends with their return to England.
How Audiovisual Elements Furthers Realism and Immersion
Through these different storylines, Nolan allows viewers to put themselves in the shoes of the character—or characters—with whom they identify with the most. For instance, someone who is used to having to follow orders and is often at the mercy of others might identify more with Tommy, while someone who is familiar with positions of power and being responsible for others would feel more immersed in Commander Bolton’s character. Also, because there is a lack of backstory for these characters, viewers can more easily identify with them without being restricted by their specific experiences. Murphy’s character, for example, is never even given a name, making him a stand in for soldiers traumatized by the Dunkirk evacuation in general. Because of this, he becomes more of a lens through which we can experience the evacuation. The only exception is Mr. Dawson, but even in this case, all we know is that he lost a son in the war—a broad experience that can be shared by anyone who has either lost a child or fears losing one. Instead of offering characters with complex personalities and backstories, Nolan gives his viewers—in a way—empty human frames inside of which viewers can enter and watch as the events of the movie unfold before that character’s eyes.
That is why the mise-en-scene of this movie is crucial in making that experience seem as realistic as possible. One of the main ways Nolan does this is through on-location shooting; Dunkirk was “filmed in the exact spots where Operation Dynamo took place” (Burns). (Operation Dynamo is the code-name for the Dunkirk evacuation.) Similarly, “Nolan used real navy destroyers for the battle sequences instead of CGI” (Van Evra). Both these choices allow for a more accurate representation of the actual events that transpired in the beginning of World War II, thus making the viewers’ experience more similar to that of someone in Dunkirk during the evacuation of 1940. Another aspect of mise-en-scene that adds realism is the costumes and make-up, which varies from extra to extra. We can see differences in the helmets they wear, their clothes, their accessories, even their bruises and bandages; as a result, each soldier becomes an individual. This convinces viewers that what they are seeing is an accurate representation of reality, which in turn allows for greater immersion. The use of “over 6,000 extras” (Van Evra) also adds to that feeling of accurate representation; even though there were about 400,000 men on that beach during the evacuation, in a single scene, “1,500 extras” can create the illusion of “338,000 allied soldiers” (Van Evra). All these aspects of mise-en-scene (most of them present in Fig. 1) are intended to make the movie seem both realistic and historically accurate.
Fig 1. Soldiers at the Dunkirk beach rising after being bombed (00:07:25).
This sense of realism adds to the immersive experience of Dunkirk when combined with its cinematographic style, which mostly aims at making the camera mimic the eyes of someone who experienced these events. The constant use of subjective shots, for instance, allows viewers to see most of the action through the point of view of characters. Sometimes, that feeling of subjectivity is enhanced by how the camera movement replicates that of the character. An example would be when Mr. Dawson’s boat drives by a military ship, and the shot from his point of view tracks right to mirror the movement of the boat. Also, the camera is usually placed in a way that matches the position of most characters’ heads—usually at eye level and at a straight angle—which makes most shots possibly subjective. In some cases, such as when Tommy and the other soldiers are inside a boat they find, waiting for the tide to come in, the camera is placed at a lower level to match the characters’ sitting position (see Fig. 2). This gives the audience the impression of watching through the eyes of the soldiers, alternating between different perspectives to allow for greater immersion. Another aspect that adds to this feeling is the use of “handheld IMAX cameras” (Van Evra)—allowing for the kind of camera movement that most closely matches the human perspective (and an amazing picture quality). Lastly, this film mostly relies on natural lighting (see Figs. 2 and 4), making the setting more realistic. These cinematographic choices are meant to put the audience inside the movie’s diegesis, to make them feel as though they are in Dunkirk during the evacuation of 1940.
Fig 2. Soldiers inside abandoned boat (01:03:45-04:20)
At certain times, the cinematography works together with the editing to achieve that same goal. The main way it does this is through eyeline matches. There are multiple scenes in this movie in which we see a shot of a character looking at something followed by a shot of where they are looking at from their general position. Sometimes, the camera captures the back of their heads in the second shot, and so their perspective is represented but not their exact point of view. Most of the time, however, the camera works as the characters’ eyes, thus helping to put the audience in their shoes. Another element of editing in this film that helps with immersion is the use of long takes. By minimizing cuts, viewers can share the characters’ temporality more often. Also, since most transitions are straight cuts and sometimes fades, the movie draws less attention to the way it is made, making it feel less artificial and more like a representation of reality. Like all other cinematic elements, the editing of this film is focused on creating a feeling of realism and immersion.
The sound element is no different. As Gray points out in his article, “[Richard] King’s team made sure the sounds in ‘Dunkirk’ are authentic.” The meticulous way in which sound perspective is used in this movie, for instance, gives the audience a strong three-dimensional sense of space. Sometimes he creates the perception of distance through changes in volume and pitch, such as when enemy bombers approach; we can gradually hear the planes’ engine growing louder as they come closer to the camera. Similarly, working against the unrealistic way in which, “when a bomb falls in most battle films, the sounds get fainter before impact,” King’s team “reversed all incoming shell sounds so they rose in pitch” (Gray). Another interesting aspect of sound in this film is the non-diegetic ticking of a clock, which follows a similar tempo as a nervous heartbeat, thus giving viewers a sense of the tension felt by the soldiers. Lastly, to “convey [the] physical sensation of being in the plane,” King’s team used “20-25 microphones scattered throughout the plane” (Gray). As we can see, King’s goal was to create an accurate and immersive sound experience for Dunkirk.
We can this being achieved in the first ten minutes of the movie, in the scene in which Tommy arrives at the beach and enemy airplanes drop bombs on the soldiers. Starting after he helps Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) bury a dead Englishman, we can hear that clock ticking in the background until a few seconds before the bombers arrive. That conveys the tension felt by the character at that moment. Then, the use of three different eyeline matches in less than a minute—Tommy looking at the line of soldiers, at the medics carrying the wounded, and at the mole—allows viewers to share his point of view. In the first eyeline match, in which he is walking, the camera slowly tracks to the left to match his motion; in the other two, when he is standing still but moving his head, the camera pans right. Once the bombers arrive, sound perspective becomes increasingly important in creating a sense of space. The volume of the airplanes’ engines gradually rises, allowing the audience to hear with the characters. At this point, we get a few shots from the general perspective of different soldiers. Then, as they lay on the ground, the camera is placed at an extreme low level to match the position of their heads. As the bombs start to fall, the sound of the explosions grows increasingly louder as they near Tommy, which approximates what he would have heard. On a similar note, the sand that is poured on his head after the last explosion seems to hit the camera as well—the audience’s eyes and ears. Afterwards, there is a constant beat in the background, symbolizing the character’s nervous heartbeat. All these audiovisual elements aim at making the viewing experience of this scene a mimesis of Tommy’s experience.
Fig 3. Tommy laying on the sand as the last bomb explodes (00:07:10)
Similar techniques are used in the sequence in which Tommy and Alex (Harry Styles) are inside the military ship—and they serve similar goals. For instance, the mise-en-scene aims at creating a sense of realism through the individualization of extras: the crowd of soldiers wear diverse clothes, some have distinct wounds, and most of them are holding mugs and pieces of bread. As Tommy and Alex go inside the ship, there is a shot filmed with a handheld camera and at eye-level that stays focused on the two characters as they go down the stairs and move through the crowd below. Although not apparent, this shot seems almost like the point of view of someone watching from above, making it possible for the audience to imagine themselves inside the ship and having that perspective. To add realism, this scene is illuminated by the lamps inside the ship, as opposed to a three-point lighting system that has an artificial feeling. Also, most shots are filmed at eye level and on a straight angle, making each also seem like a possible point of view of a character (or close to it; see Fig. 4). On top of that, this scene has five eyeline matches—four as Tommy looks around inside the ship, and one showing Gibson’s perspective outside on the deck—which serves to give viewers a sense of what it would look like to be on that character’s place. The ambient sound, on the other hand, which features multiple indistinct conversations, gives them a notion of what it would sound like to be on that ship in general. The cinematic elements of this sequence, like the previous one analysed, are all focused on building a sense of realism and immersion.
Fig 4. Tommy and Alex inside the military ship (00:31:30)
Shifting from the soldiers on land and sea to the pilots in the air, we can see that the audiovisual elements serve a similar purpose. In the scene in which Collins’ plane goes down, there are three eyeline matches of Farrier’s point of view in a span of about thirty seconds: one showing us his panel as he writes down his fuel count with chalk, and two showing Collins’ plane losing altitude. Because of this, the audience is given a good sense of what it would look like to be inside Farrier’s plane. The camera is also shaky during these shots, and we can hear the constant noise of the engine in the background. As Collins’ plane hits the water, we see it through a subjective shot that approximates Farrier’s perspective, again putting the viewers in his position. That immersion is accentuated by the blended movement of the camera tracking left and panning to the right, which matches the motion of the plane and of the pilot’s head turning. This kind of immersive shot is repeated six times throughout this sequence, including seven additional eyeline matches showing Farrier’s point of view inside his plane (some visible in Fig. 5). Since a good part of the scene is watched through the pilot’s perspective, viewers feel more immersed in the events unfolding before their eyes. Additionally, this sequence is also accompanied by the non-diegetic sound of the ticking clock, which gives the audience a sense of the tension felt by Farrier as he fights the enemy planes. Like in the other two scenes examined, the cinematic elements in this one are mostly geared towards placing the viewer inside the character’s shoes—in this case, Farrier’s.
Fig 5. Four different shots of Farrier’s point of view inside his plane (00:43:10 – 48:55)
Nolan achieves a similar goal throughout the whole movie—to make his audience feel inside Dunkirk’s diegesis—through his use of audiovisual elements intent on creating a sense of realism and immersion. As Nolan says in an interview, he wanted to give his audience “different perspectives on the event so they had an understanding of the bigger events without ever leaving a subjective mode of storytelling” (Thompson). Although these techniques are neither original nor unique to this film, the interplay between them enhances the effects of any one individually. For instance, the choice of an unrestricted style of narration would not be enough to achieve that desired feeling of immersion by itself, only when integrated with other elements that serve a similar purpose, such as sound perspective, realistic mise-en-scene, eyeline matches, and others mentioned above. Nolan masterfully turned most cinematic aspects of this movie towards a single goal: realism and immersion. That is why viewers experience anxiety and tension when watching this feature-length film. Since Dunkirk is based on real events, this choice allows viewers to have a better understanding of what British and French soldiers went through in the middle of 1940; but we will never be able to fully grasp the despair they must have felt as they struggled to survive what became known as Operation Dynamo.
Brown, Philips. “’Dunkirk’ Review: Anxiety-Inducing Action.” The Bonus View, 21 July 2017, https://www.highdefdigest.com/blog/dunkirk-2017-movie-review/.
Burns, Catriona. “Discover the real locations from the film Dunkirk.” Complete France, 9 Feb. 2018, https://www.completefrance.com/travel/holiday-ideas/locations-from-the-dunkirk-film-that-you-can-visit-1-5389383.
Chitwood, Adam. “First ‘Dunkirk’ Reactions Praise Craft and Tension in Christopher Nolan’s WWII Action-Thriller.” Collider, 10 July 2017, https://collider.com/dunkirk-reviews/.
Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan. 2017. Warner Bros., 2017. Blu-Ray.
Gray, Tim. “How Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ Team Captured the Sounds of Battle.” Variety, 15 Dec 2017, https://variety.com/2017/film/awards/christopher-nolan-dunkirk-sound-war-1202641690/.
Sharf, Zack. “’Dunkirk’ First Reactions Are Overwhelmingly Positive, Praise Chistopher Nolan’s ‘Masterclass’ WWII Movie.” IndieWire, 10 July 2017, https://www.indiewire.com/2017/07/dunkirk-first-reactions-christopher-nolan-reviews-1201853488/.
Thompson, Anne. “Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ Broke the Rules by Ignoring Spielberg and Hiding Tom Hardy.”IndieWire, 9 Feb. 2018, https://www.indiewire.com/2018/02/christopher-nolan-dunkirk-broke-the-rules-oscars-hoyte-van-hoytema-1201926487/.
Van Evra, Jennifer. “Dunkirk: 11 things about what some are calling the greatest war film ever made.” CBC, 19 July 2017, www.cbc.ca/radio/q/blog/dunkirk-11-things-about-what-some-are-calling-the-greatest-war-film-ever-made-1.4210704.