You never see the Nazis.
This isn’t a new insight into Christopher Nolan’s 2017 war film Dunkirk. But it bears repeating: In Nolan’s epic telling of Operation Dynamo, a desperate mission to rescue stranded Allied soldiers from France’s northern beaches, there is not a single Axis soldier seen. This isn’t a typical war film. The enemy is faceless, unseen but always lurking.
But that doesn’t mean Nolan’s film lacks tension or drama. In fact, Dunkirk may just be Nolan’s most stressful movie. And, apropos of Nolan’s fetish for time, time is running out to stream Dunkirk before it leaves HBO Max on February 11.
While one of the more “grounded” pictures in Nolan’s oeuvre — Dunkirk’s release in 2017 was sandwiched between Nolan’s space travel love poem Interstellar, and Tenet, a baffling blockbuster involving time manipulation — Dunkirk commands almost all of Nolan’s trademarks. Cross-cutting, intersecting timelines, and the urgency of dwindling time are all cranked up. Leave it to Nolan to make a journey of boats and bombers feel more dire and far more complex than spaceships built on sleepless equations.
What Dunkirk eschews from Nolan’s usual plans is dialogue. Almost everything Nolan makes is loaded with words, from his Batman trilogy to the overabundance of exposition in Inception. People do speak in Dunkirk — someone’s got to bark commands, after all — but some of the most impactful moments are when there’s unbroken silence, like when a trio of soldiers seemingly doomed to stay on the beaches spend a lot of time dwelling in their helplessness. You almost never get to know any of the characters in Dunkirk. You only know their palpable desperation to make it out alive.
Dunkirk’s plot is made up of three timelines, all of which stretch at varying lengths — a week, a day, an hour — and intersect at critical moments: on the ground, in which three soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles) make attempts to escape that end in Sisyphean defeat; on the sea with a civilian sailor (Mark Rylance), his son (Tom Glynn-Carney), and a handyman (Barry Keoghan) who pick up a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy); and up in the air, with RAF pilot Farrier (played by Tom Hardy) flying on a limited tank of fuel.
Dunkirk is mesmerizing in its sheer complexity, which is also typical of Nolan, whose films frequently appear constructed like a Rube Goldberg machine. Dunkirk’s a period war film rooted in history, yet Nolan isn’t content to simply adapt a high school history textbook. The director’s penchant for storytelling machinery that’s as intricate and specific as the organs of a wristwatch is laid bare in Dunkirk, and it’s dizzying to see unfold.
Perhaps the most impressive tool Nolan uses to create tension isn’t seen, but heard. Alongside editor Lee Smith, a frequent Nolan collaborator, composer Hans Zimmer scores Dunkirk using the Shepard tone. Named for scientist Roger Shepard, the Shepard tone is an auditory illusion of ascending or descending pitches, even though nothing actually rises or falls. It’s a repeat pattern that our brains trick us into believing is escalating. It’s basically a GIF in musical form, a constant loop even though a climax is teased.
Both Zimmer and Nolan weaponize the Shepard tone throughout the score of Dunkirk, which is a pure extension of the movie’s restless, never-ending feeling of danger. Listen closely to the film’s opening track, “The Mole,” and track the Shepard tone throughout the rest of the movie. Dunkirk is designed around the Shepard tone both as a primary musical motif as well as its theoretical idea. The entire movie, all one hour and 46 minutes, feels like a state of climax.
This is how you create one of the most stressful movies ever made, and without a single Nazi in sight. A true maestro combining science, art, and history, Christopher Nolan again proves his prowess behind the camera. Dunkirk maybe isn’t the sexiest movie he’s ever made, but it’s one of the most skilled. Fittingly, Hans Zimmer’s motif of ticks in Dunkirk are actually recorded from Nolan’s own actual wristwatch. For Christopher Nolan, when it comes to playing with time in cinema, it’s all in his wrist.
Dunkirk is streaming on HBO Max until February 11.