Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The lost sense of community: Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’

Christopher Nolan’s recently released feature film Dunkirk not only fills a long-existing gap in cinematic coverage of important historical (particularly wartime) events; it also highlights something of contemporary significance: the glaring difference between the world of the 1940s and that of today, namely the strong sense of community that animated people back then, and which, by and large, is no longer evident in the world of the 21st century.

The ‘story’ of Dunkirk, that is, of the events that unfolded on the beaches of France at the eponymous location, in the air above the English Channel, and in the sea between the French and British coast, is fairly well-known. And yet, for various reasons a feature-length, ‘fictionalised’ cinematic account of it had never been undertaken until now. In answer to the question, why this is the case, Nolan explains in a recent interview in Time magazine (July 31 2017, p. 41-43):

“What I realise in retrospect is this is a British film – it has no Americans in it – but it needs the Hollywood Studio machine to be able to make something technically on the scale that’s necessary to do this story justice. I’ve always seen Dunkirk as a universal story, something that anybody could relate to. But the reason why it hasn’t been made before is it requires such massive resources.”

In other words, it is one thing to cover the historic events at Dunkirk in a documentary – I seem to recall that it was covered in the television series, The World at War – but quite another to engage in the massive undertaking of recreating this event as cinematic narrative. The secret of Nolan’s success lies, in my view, not simply in his ability to coordinate the large numbers of people and pieces of equipment logistically in the reconstruction of the events as they unfolded.

It is due, largely I believe, to his decision to place viewers in the perspectival position of the characters on whom the narrative focuses intermittently through the eye of the cine-camera, shifting from one (or one group) to another as the sequence of events on that fateful day in 1940 played themselves out. This has the effect that, instead of viewers experiencing what happens from the outside, as it were, as mere spectators, one experiences every new occurrence or development through the eyes of the characters concerned.

In philosophical terms, one might say that this is one of the most phenomenologically evocative (war) films ever made, which simply means that the phenomenon of war, of staging a desperate evacuation effort during war, is brought home to viewers as if they actually find themselves in the situation as it happened at the time. To illustrate this, regarding the way the film was shot, Nolan says (in the Time interview):

“There are very few ‘God shots’. Everything is about trying to have the camera there on the beach with the soldiers. In the aerial sequences, the camera is always in the cockpit or mounted to the plane, always somewhere where it would need to be to photograph that kind of combat. And on the small yacht crossing the Channel to come to the rescue of the men, we almost never take the camera off the boat. Everything is shot from the point of view of the characters.”

One of the most prominent things foregrounded in the film is the tremendous sense of community that motivated ordinary people back home in England to take to the sea in every available, privately-owned, seaworthy vessel and head for the beaches of Dunkirk to rescue the soldiers trapped there. Nolan comments on this in the Time interview as follows:

“This tale is about the idea of home. It’s about the desperate frustration of not being able to get to where you need to be. We live in an era where the idea of too many people piling onto one boat to try and cross difficult waters safely isn’t something that people can dismiss as a story from 1940 anymore. We live in an era where the virtue of individuality is very much overstated. The idea of communal responsibility and communal heroism and what can be achieved through community is unfashionable. Dunkirk is a very emotional story for me because it represents what’s being lost.”

What Nolan does not make explicit here is that the vanishing of a sense of community in our time is something that has its roots in the shift (in the 1970s) from the Keynesian-type of regulation-oriented capitalism to neoliberal, market-based capitalism, with its emphasis on unbridled, sometimes unscrupulous investment speculation for the financial benefit of a few individual traders and bankers – what Manuel Castells calls the elite managerial classes of today. This trend towards financial individualism epitomises what capitalism, by its very ‘nature’, does: it breaks up communities because its underlying anthropology of competitiveness instead of cooperation focuses on the individual at the cost of the community.

To return to Dunkirk: Nolan’s formula for the different focal points in the narrative was simple: the drama of Dunkirk – where 400&nbp;000 men were stranded on the beach at Dunkirk, with the Germans closing in – was enacted on the beach, in the sea and in the air. On the beach English and French soldiers had their backs against the wall, as it were, and ships trying to evacuate some of them – like the Red Cross ship in the film – were bombed or torpedoed by the Germans.

The feared German Stuka dive-bombers wreaked havoc among the soldiers on the ground, while in the air the Messerschmidt fighters, which were escorting German Dornier bombers targeting British ships, engaged in dogfights with British Spitfires. In the sea the focus is mainly on the people in one of the privately-owned boats that comprised the motley fleet of civilian boats that set out from England to rescue the stranded soldiers at Dunkirk. Although the film features fighting in the form of aerial combat – and what a sight those amazing fighters, especially the British Spitfires of the wartime era, make! – it is mainly about people fleeing from a situation where they faced certain death or imprisonment. Nolan comments as follows in the Time interview:

“Dunkirk is not really a battle – it’s an evacuation, a retreat. It’s a fight for survival, and it immediately drew me to the language of suspense, and the thriller, rather than all-out combat. It really was a question of, Can they pull off this miraculous feat before either having to surrender or be annihilated by the Germans? That was the choice: surrender or annihilation.”

Nolan’s description is accurate to a fault – his Dunkirk is a thrilling, suspenseful account of what must have seemed an impossible undertaking to the Germans at the time, in 1940. This is the reason why I have not divulged any spoiler-type details about the narrative – do yourself a favour and go to the theatre to see this film. On a television screen it won’t be the same. And just maybe you’ll experience the vanishing sense of community, albeit vicariously.

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