dr. Clinton Peter Verdonschot

philosopher // aesthetician // critical theorist

Dunkirk (2017) never happened: Christopher Nolan’s fabrication of history

24 August, 2017


In blatant honesty: I am not a fan of the films of Christopher Nolan. At best, his films provoke in me just a mild irritation. An annoyance which, sadly, gets amplified, when a reviewer, without the slightest sense of irony, glorifies him as the next Stanley Kubrick. So, with that confession in mind, one would be justified in thinking that I was stacking the cards against Nolan’s new war film Dunkirk (2017). To be frank, Nolan’s latest is also his finest yet. But I still don’t think it’s a good film. Dunkirk, while officially about the evacuation of British soldiers from France during the opening stages of the Second World War in 1940, is not really a war film. It barely even classifies as cinema, rather it is more akin to an episode of confabulation.

The reason for my general dislikes of Nolan stems from a conviction I have about cinema as an art form: the art of film is (or should be) about showing things. Of course, all visual art forms share this aspiration to a certain extent, but with the possible exception of photography, there is no other medium quite as good in inspiring a straightforward form of cognitive delight: your attention is roused, events unfold and you get to understand what is happening as the film progresses. This might be a banal definition of what cinema is/should be about, but its strength lies in its applicability. From high to low, cinema provides us with different ways (sometimes imagined) of looking at the world and when it is really successful, it makes us review our own perception of the world.

The point is, even if the definition is not very thought-provoking, it yields a broadly applicable (and thus minimal) standard to which a film should aspire. Moreover, I believe that it is precisely cinema’s unique strength of showing things which has made it so succesful as an art form. Really harnessing this strength, however, turns out to be more difficult than might seem. In fact, I believe that Nolan is categorically incapable of informing his audience about anything. On the contrary, Nolan’s films are extremely adept at showing you nothing at all.


Let’s start with an obvious example: whenever I watch Nolan’s action scenes, I am hopelessly lost. I am aware, of course, that there are good guys, bad guys, and maybe some guys in a morally grey area. But the scene itself does not convey anything about how all these guys (I will return to the issue of gender) interact with each other. Showing actions and making clear their wider significance is, arguably, the point of an action scene, but in Nolan’s films this aspiration is absent. Instead, through abstract shots featuring as little visual information as possible, Nolan’s scenes are thoroughly obfuscating. The only thing that they manage to convey is an abstract sense of chaos. This issue has already been brilliantly analysed by film critic Jim Emerson, so I will not dwell on it further. My point is simply that an important device occuring throughout Nolan’s films is miscommunication, i.e. the wilful obfuscation, instead of re-/presentation, of events.

Still from *Inception* (2010)
Still from Inception (2010)

Cinema is all about showing things. At some point, however, complex information becomes indistinguishable from misinformation. Recognising this, some directors have consciously aimed to push the envelope, to challenge our ability to know in the first place. Stanley Kubrick was a master of utilizing misinformation to create a sense of discomfort. When closely analysing scenes from The Shining (1980), it becomes apparent that the Overlook Hotel has an entirely illogical and even impossible architecture. This knowledge is probably not something that a typical film goer worries about, but still the effects are noticeable: just because there is no implicit sense of spatial location, of where exactly we are in the hotel, we (like the film’s protagonists) come to feel lost, imprisoned in the hotel.

So, Nolan is no stranger to the party. In Nolan, as in Kubrick and in other directors, there is the same basic distrust of ‘reality’, a hostility to the idea that there is an objective view from nowhere that is untainted by subjective perspective. So maybe the Kubrick comparison does hold up? What renders Nolan the odd one out, is the fact that his films do not utilise miscommunication in order to point to our limited status as knowing subjects. Rather, they challenge our understanding by juxtaposing an equal but opposed force of misunderstanding.

Still from *Interstellar* (2014)
Still from Interstellar (2014)

Yet, surely Nolan’s dialogue is more easily followed than his action scenes? I may be alone in this, but often I have trouble making out what Nolan’s characters are murmuring. And even when the dialogue is explicable, it is just terribly written, merely functioning as a necessary change of pace so as not to exhaust your attention. The words are not used to point your attention to something worth thinking about, their only function is to keep you from getting bored inbetween action scenes.

In this way, the aspiration of showing something makes way for visual chaos interrupted by moments of vocal noise. Into this chaos the audience is invited to imagine just about anything. Like Slavoj Zizek, you can view The Dark Knight as an allegory for the inherent corruption of political authority. You could also view it completely differently. Maybe, it’s about the (thin) dividing line between sanity and madness. Or maybe about the contingent differences between criminal and policing violence. “Maybe it’s, like, all these things and none of them at the same time, man. Or whatever, but isn’t Heath Ledger like the best Joker ever?” Ledger’s merits as an actor aside, the point is that Nolan’s films are not about anything and if we imagine them to be, we do so in a way that is principally divorced from anything that the film actually is. At best, therefore, Nolan’s films are delusional, subjective imaginings without reality checks.

This is not a new criticism, of course: South Park famously slammed Nolan for masquerading misinformation as deep complexity. Moreover, one might wonder: why is this really an issue? What’s so wrong with Nolan’s flights of fantasy? Isn’t this all part of the magic of cinema? No. It’s not. The magic of cinema (at least according to my simple, broadly applicable definition) is its ability to show something. Fantasy films can show things, their stories can make sense. A delusion, on the contrary, is not about anything and, normally, the only way in which it gains traction is by perverting beliefs for the purpose of satisfying an emotional need or desire. The point, for now, is that Nolan’s ‘films’ are not films at all, but rather the opposite. They are anti-cinema.

Fabricated history

Let this be a characterization of Nolan’s previous films. It is also why I had great hopes for Dunkirk: as a film about a real historical event, I hoped it would help keep Nolan grounded and unable to veer off into delusion. So what’s the result? Granted, the plot is less contrived, pretty straightforward to follow, etc. Disregarding the action scenes (I’ve already discussed them), in Dunkirk, I am actually granted a perspective on the events of the evacuation. Or am I? It is said that WW2 veterans, watching the opening scene to Saving Private Ryan (1998) would get triggered into reliving their trauma, because it was so much like how it truly felt to be there. And while there are probably not many veterans left from the actual evacuation out of Dunkirk to verify the matter, I have the suspicion that the same does not hold for Dunkirk. A quote from Nolan himself (via The Wrap) is telling:

I did not want to go through the dialogue, tell the story of my characters… The problem is not who they are, who they pretend to be or where they come from. The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it? Will they be killed by the next bomb while trying to join the mole? Or will they be crushed by a boat while crossing?

And such questions, of course, have nothing to do with being there. They could be answered by anyone who has been in whatever awful war scenario involving bombs and boats and a tight situation. Nolan is merely interested, it seems, in the sheer thrill of it, not in what actually happened. Still, there is something different: Dunkirk (2017) is about an actual event, it tracks the truth. Or does it? It is important here to take note of Nolan’s workflow (via DGA):

Nolan first worked out “a precise mathematical structure” for the story before writing the script, which he determined had to be driven by fictional characters inspired by, but not slavishly based on, actual eyewitnesses. This structure would later have a profound impact on the creation of the score by one of Nolan’s many longtime collaborators, composer Hans Zimmer, which took a year to create since it had to work in exact rhythm to the suspense-driven editing Nolan composed with his regular editor, Lee Smith.

Dunkirk as it exists in Nolan’s imagination thus takes precedence over Dunkirk as it actually happened. ‘Precise mathematical structure’ (whatever that means) is more important than actual history. Of course, the idea that art is autonomous, that artistic storytelling is principally unbound by the demands of, say, historical storytelling, is a familiar one. I do not intend to challenge Nolan’s artistic prerogative to fabricate a Dunkirk of his own. The point is that, if this is what the film is, a fabrication, artistic standards apply: what is the film trying to show us? And why?

Still from The Dark Knight (2008)
Still from The Dark Knight (2008)

Nation-building and the need to believe

Yes, Nolan, made a fictional film about an event that actually happened. So what? There are lots of films like this! Well, I wanted to point out the totally fictional nature of Dunkirk, in order to render clear the ideological foundations that actually carry the film. What purpose is this fabrication meant to serve?

All of Dunkirk’s heroes are male. There are only two female actors in the film, both extras having only one line of dialogue each, a shocking statistic. Of course, I would be willing to concede that, actually, there were no female soldiers at Dunkirk in 1940. But the film is not meant as a faithful depiction. Dunkirk (2017) never happened! It is less than a documentary, yet slightly more than a delusion. It is a confabulation, a subversion of actual memories which is meant to satisfy an emotional need. And the emotional need in this case, is for a world where heroes just are male.

So if gender equality is not actually an aspiration, what is? The film makes no mention of Nazism and its specific wrongs. So its purpose does not lie in addressing the wrongs of national socialism. For a film that is purportedly about a WWII event, this arguably an inforgiveable omission, but Nolan himself has made clear (again, see the DGA post) that he understand Dunkirk (2017) to be a suspense film rather than a war film. But why, then, centre the film around the events at Dunkirk in the first place?

“Dunkirk is in the DNA of my fellow Britons,” Nolan says. “It’s in our bones. Like all English people, I was raised on this story. I had quietly harbored for many years the desire to make a film on the subject since it’s one of the great stories in human history.”

This finally makes sense: Nolan is not so much engaged in telling the story of Dunkirk. Rather, he is nation-building and for this purpose what actually happened (either in Dunkirk in 1940, or on screen in 2017) is less important than getting across the right message to the fullest effect.

By using fiction, I was able to explain various aspects of what happened in Dunkirk more efficiently and with more emotional clarity than by just following strict facts.

One may wonder what “emotional clarity” means, exactly. But here, it seems to be merely the quality of feeling very strongly about something without second-guessing yourself. This is the purpose of Dunkirk: to inspire an unwavering sense of marvel at the indomitable spirit of the British people. One can even see, post-Brexit, how such a confabulation serves an actual emotional need: Nolan needs to believe that it is still possible for England to miraculously evacuate from Europe without sustaining critical losses. But that does not make the film itself a political film. At best, it is a seductive ideology. At worst, it qualifies as fake news that is old to boot.