Yesterday, I saw director Christopher Nolan’s first historical film, Dunkirk, in theaters. It tells the story, tragically unfamiliar to American audiences, of the evacuation of thousands of Allied troops trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk in France by the Germans in WWII. As they attempted to escape on naval and civilian ships, they faced a horrifying barrage of attacks by air. The story certainly doesn’t make for an enjoyable watch, but for a harsh, relentless, excellent movie-going experience. As a friend of mine said after the movie (I hope she doesn’t sue me), the strength of Dunkirk is its sense of unity. The acting, cinematography, visual and sound design, direction, and, yes, the score, all click together in a way that I haven’t seen for several years. Dunkirk also showed me, for the first time, a concrete reason behind why Christopher Nolan and maestro Hans Zimmer are such a powerful director-composer couple.
Anyone familiar with Christopher Nolan’s directing style will know that given the choice between CGI and practical effects, he will choose practical effects every time. Even when it seems he doesn’t have a choice, he will go to ridiculous lengths to create practical effects anyway. One example is the famous spinning hallway he built for Inception, used to simulate weightlessness. In Dunkirk, Nolan spent millions of dollars on practical effects, including vintage aircraft and ships. Wherever he could, he dropped his actors in the closest facsimile of a war zone possible, including a scene in which he set water on fire. Nolan’s dedication to keep the film as real and as immersive as possible is the key to why Hans Zimmer remains his perfect compliment.
In the past, I’ve called Zimmer a minimalist, but that’s not strictly speaking true. He is not a minimalist in the way that Howard Shore can be, as, for example, in his Spotlight score, where music is rarely ever used outside of scene transitions. In Dunkirk, music is constantly present, and incredibly complex. One might still be tempted to call Zimmer a minimalist upon first listen because, unlike more traditionalist composers such as John Williams, Zimmer does not create a hummable melody or any true central themes here. Certain motifs accentuate the tension, such as the ticking of Nolan’s own pocket watch, but mostly Zimmer extends the sounds already found in the film with the aid of a computer and an orchestra. The beat of footfalls running on the beach translates into a pulse of a synthesizer, the chill wind whips itself into an indifferent violin, and the roar of the plane engines meets the grind of cellos and bases halfway. The music blurs the line between the diegetic and the non-diegetic. In other words, the listener is left baffled as to what counts as sound design (existing in the movie’s universe) and what counts as score (existing outside the movie’s universe.) The music is not symbolic – there is no Batman-esque French horn here to create a symphonic representation of heroism and justice. There are only the sounds of war, transformed and interpreted by instruments. What better match could there be for a director dedicated to realism than a composer with music tastes to match?
The paradox of this situation, however (you can’t escape paradoxes with Nolan), is that while both the music and directing feel real, they are not strictly speaking authentic. In his effort to make sure that he always had marine and aircraft physically present, Nolan made compromises with historical accuracy. In this interview with Film4, Nolan said that Dunkirk is about “the feeling of authenticity, not authenticity itself.” He gives the example of a French destroyer built ten years after the evacuation at Dunkirk took place, which was refurbished for the film as a British destroyer. Even though they can make it look from the outside as though they are the same ship in terms of paint and design, they cannot hide the fact that the French destroyer is a good eighty feet longer than the original British craft. He goes on to mention a Messerschmitt 109 German fighter plane, and the decision to use one with a yellow nose, despite the fact that the noses were painted yellow a month after the events at Dunkirk, in order to distinguish the plane from the British Spitfires. Nolan describes this as a trade-off – a way that something has to become less real to make it have a more true impact. To let the audience interact with color and the actors interact with a real ship instead of a more accurate CGI model shows the confidence and commitment Nolan has to his own priorities as a filmmaker.
Similarly, while Zimmer’s music moves away from symbolism and toward realism, he uses computers for composition. Yet again he stands in contrast to John Williams, who uses piano and paper to compose. Though Williams is one of the greatest film composers of all time, his style of composition would not suit the story that Christopher Nolan embarks upon adapting with Dunkirk. Only Zimmer completes Nolan’s puzzle. In fact, his willingness to sculpt reality out of artificiality is fused so tightly with Nolan’s philosophies on filmmaking that Nolan even crafted the script to mimic a Shepard tone.
A Shepard tone is (as best as I can describe it – bear with me, I’m no musician) an auditory illusion whereby a tone appear to be moving up or down in pitch to mount tension, but in reality, the pitch stays the same. You can read more about a Shepard tone here. Dunkirk ramps up in intensity throughout without the plot becoming overly complicated and without much character arc. The main “pitch” of the movie, if you will, is constant: these men want to get home. Zimmer falls right into step with Nolan’s script, ramping up the tension without ever creating a main theme. Every piece is given equal attention in this movie – the whole body of music is a character in and of itself, just as the battle itself is a character. What makes it all shine is Zimmer’s and Nolan’s willingness to click together and focus on bringing the “feeling of authenticity” to an audience. Judging by the reception of critics, the general public, and even veterans who survived the battle at Dunkirk, they succeeded.
This film, like so many of Nolan’s best works, begs a second viewing. I can’t wait to go back and marvel at all the times something seemingly artificial was made so incredibly real – cardboard cutouts replace background extras, Harry Styles makes you forget that he was in One Direction, and Hans Zimmer reveals that the proverbial drums of war are war itself. Who else but Nolan and Zimmer can take the spectacle and all the tricks and dazzle of Hollywood and consistently turn it into something this genuine and unified in 2017? If you know, please tell me. I’m dying for more.