Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has won universal critical acclaim for its attempt to authentically reproduce the evacuation of soldiers from Dunkirk. Nolan’s movie has been hailed as the artistic zenith of the war film; a masterclass in temporal and spatial elasticity, weaving together a triplet of narratives told across one week, one day, and one hour, dispersed across land, sea, and air.
The result is a strikingly sensorial cinematyesic experience. Nolan makes exquisite use of long brooding shots which capture the enigmatic enormity of sand, sea, and sky. There exists an almost existential horror about this film. Nolan compresses time and space so that the totality of human existence seems to situate at Dunkirk; the minutiae of time’s passing and the ungraspable immediacy of the moment, the perennial threat of death and the languorous longevity of life. These are the ways in which Nolan conveys the exactitude of war, the seemingly unobstructed sensation of reality and the pensive experience of impending elimination. For precisely one-hundred and forty six minutes we are left waiting, waiting for escape… waiting in nightmarish tension for ‘deliverance’ and forced to watch as premature attempts at emancipation are washed back to the shore, back to an intractable war and ever further from ‘home’.
Whether or not the violent immersion of Nolan’s filmmaking masks the vacuity of his storytelling, I do not know. Despite trying terribly hard to resist, Nolan cannot help but tumble into the muddy, well trodden trench of war film tropes. Sparse on dialogue and heavily reliant on Hans Zimmer’s (quite brilliant) score Nolan closes his narrative with a romantic crescendo that belies an otherwise ‘realistic’ (I use that term in the most austere sense possible) picture. Predictably, the nuances of narrative are discarded in favour of a quasi-patriotic glorification of conflict.
The closing sequence goes something like this: Hurrah! Hurrah! Here come the returning ‘heroes’ of mythical Dunkirk, greeted with sunshine, smiling children, and cider. Oh, and of course, we shall ‘never surrender’… we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds… we shall fight in the fields of wheat, the twelve story car parks and in the fourth Costa Coffee of a middle-England high street.
To aestheticise war is to legitimise, in some removed sense, the causation, conflict, and consequences of war
Jesting aside, it is not this casual warmongering that I am concerned with. Rather, I am concerned with Nolan’s dealings in more subtle representational interplay. Try as we might to extract ulterior significance (comradeship, community, helplessness, or homesickness) from Nolan’s picture, we are fed by unconscious osmosis the familiar notion that war is beautiful. Nolan transfigures war into “l’art pour l’art” – art for art’s sake – reminding us more presciently than ever of war’s aesthetic qualities.
This aestheticisation of war is, as I have alluded to, facilitated by Nolan’s expert command of time and space: it lay in his ability to make the ‘real’ appear more real than reality itself. There is actually very little ‘warring’ to speak of in what is for all intents and purposes a war film. Nevertheless, this fact fails to detract from Nolan’s aestheticisation of war. Why? Why, in fact, is the opposite true? Why does the lack of violence actually serve to precipitate the aestheticisation of war? It is because Nolan’s decidedly sparse use of violence only enhances Dunkirk’s self-purported sense of accuracy, craftsmanship, and apparent accomercial ‘artistic’ value.
The consequences of the aestheticisation of war are oppressive. This is a lesson of The Frankfurt School – particularly Walter Benjamin and his ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility’ – that we have failed to heed. What’s more, this is a lessons as old as the art form of film itself. Film is governed more than any other art form by the collective sum of its reception by individuals. In other words (the words of Walter Benjamin) its ‘collective reception’. To aestheticise war is to legitimise, in some removed sense, the causation, conflict, and consequences of war. More significantly, it is to cultivate an acceptance of war in the collective consciousness, ingraining into our shared psyche a normative acceptance of war’s inevitability, irrespective of its heroic merits and its tragic pitfalls.
the resemblance of blood to the expressive brushstroke of the painter, or in the cacophony of colour caused by the explosion of shells on shores
I mention these ‘tragic pitfalls’ because it is important to recognise that the aestheticisation of war needn’t only manifest itself in the unambiguously ‘positive’ form of glorification and patriotism, with all the connotations of stoic survival and noble victory. indeed, the horrors of war must also present in its aestheticisation. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is no exception in this regard. However, for war to be horrific it is not enough for it to be ‘negative’. Rather, the war film makes romance of horror. Or, more precisely, the horrors of war become enveloped within a uniquely romantic idiom; an idiom that obtains its ‘romance’ precisely through its depiction of the horrific as in some way beautiful, beautiful in the sense that horror represents the arduous hardship over which the victor must triumph.
Perhaps not even this is so. Perhaps there is a more simple beauty to this horror: a beauty that resides in the resemblance of blood to the expressive brushstroke of the painter, or in the cacophony of colour caused by the explosion of shells on shores, or perhaps even in the elongated, moist-eyed gaze of the sea-captain who dreams only of home.
For a moment (a fleeting moment in italics) let us interject with the eternal words of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the progenitor of Futurism, who elucidates the aesthetic potentiality of war better than I ever possibly could:
War is beautiful because – thanks to its gas masks, its terrifying megaphones, its flame throwers, and light tanks – it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machine. War is beautiful because it inaugurates the dreamed-of metallization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine-guns. War is beautiful because it combines gun-fire barrages, cease-fires, scents, and the fragrance of putrefaction into a symphony…remember these principles of an aesthetic of war, that they may illuminate … your struggles for a new poetry and a new sculpture!
One thing that Christopher Nolan’s artistry makes abundantly clear is that reality cannot be so easily extrapolated from romance. Indeed, reality reproduced without obstruction can itself be the subject of a romance. Nolan realises beauty in the encapsulation of the specific, in the distillation of time and space and in the creation of a piece of cinema where the experience of war appears to us at once unmediated and aesthetic. Dunkirk is a film into which the watcher is utterly enveloped, where the abject and unnatural horrors of war are naturalised in receipt of beauty: in the creation of art.
Image: Warner Bros. 2017