Director Christopher Nolan doesn’t remember the first time he was told about the events at Dunkirk.
“Like most British people I have grown up with this story,” Nolan says.
The first minutes of Dunkirk, Nolan’s big-screen adaptation of the evacuation of 400,000 soldiers from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk, France, sets the stage. Early on in the Second World War the German army had driven the British, Belgian and Canadian armies to the sea.
“Dunkirk is where they will meet their fate,” the opening reads. “They are hoping for deliverance, hoping to find a miracle.” Between May 26 and June 4, 1940, allied soldiers were evacuated from the beset beach in Operation Dynamo.
“The resonance of the Dunkirk story to me has always been about a sense of communal heroism,” Nolan says, referring to the “little ships of Dunkirk,” a makeshift flotilla of hundreds of fishing boats, pleasure crafts and lifeboats called into service to aid in the evacuation.
“When I think about it now I realize we live in a time that bizarrely fetishizes individuality to the extent where we don’t even require ourselves to watch the same news as other people. We just watch the news we want to watch and hear what we want to hear. That is how fragmented our society has become. This elevation of the individual has come at the expense of the community and what community can achieve. There needs to be a balance and I think Dunkirk as a story is a wonderful reminder of the power of community. The power of what we can do, not just as individuals but together.”
Best seen large and loud, Dunkirk succeeds as pure cinema with minimal dialogue and electrifying visuals.
“I love the great silent films of the past,” he says. “I think that is the closest you get to pure cinema. We are now able to use sound and music and all kinds of things to enlarge the idea of what cinema can be but I wanted to strip away a lot of the theatrics we use as filmmakers in the sound era. The reason is, Dunkirk is such a simple story. It doesn’t need to be over-explained. It doesn’t need any excess of dialogue. I like the idea of using the language of suspense because suspense is the most visually based and cinematic of the movie genres.”
Dunkirk inspired Winston Churchill’s famous, “We shall fight on the beaches,” speech, an address that describes reaching for victory, “however long and hard the road may be.” It’s a journey Nolan understands both in a historical context and in his own decade-long attempt to get this film made. It’s a movie he feels passionate about, just don’t call it his passion project.
“That makes it sound like I didn’t give a s—t about the other ones,” he laughs before adding, “I find filmmaking really difficult. Yes, it’s not coal mining but I find it tough. I love it and I love movies so I don’t ever want to do it for something that I don’t really, really care about. There are filmmakers who find it easier than I do and so ‘one for me, one for them’ works, but I want to do the film I would want to see as an audience member.”