The Art of Fear: How Christopher Nolan Uses Perspective to Express Fear in Dunkirk

Garnering Christopher Nolan his very first nomination for the Academy Award for Best Director, Dunkirk represents the apex of his career in more ways than one.

It is his most compact film, his most visceral and, in many ways, most emblematic of his primary concerns as a director.

In this video essay by The Closer Look, Dunkirk is cross examined and dissected to show just how effectively director Christopher Nolan uses his various cinematic techniques to highlight the human perspective in service of emotion. Perspective was an interest that Nolan first started to build upon early in his career, with both Following and Memento using time dilations to highlight perspective, whether it is the shifting viewpoint of Following or an expression of a unique perspective, as in Memento. Throughout the rest of his career, Nolan has used his techniques and fascination with time to highlight basic human emotions—from The Prestige’s concern with obsession to Inception’s with regret and The Dark Knight Trilogy’s with heroism and all that it entails. Now with Dunkirk, Nolan has cast his cinematic lens towards one of the simplest of all emotions—fear.

Every camera trick, every movement, every syncopated storytelling device in Dunkirk is meant to evoke fear. In their essay, The Closer Look examines just how Nolan is able to expertly mine fear from the proceedings. In one key sequence aboard a ship, Nolan tightens the perspective, only allowing the camera to view from the perspective of a soldier. The camera work is entirely handheld, on the same eye level as all the soldiers, shifting, dipping and ducking out of the way as it navigates the crowd. It is scene that initially appears to be one of “respite” but, by always keeping us in the perspective of the soldiers, Nolan is able to capture the uneasy tension in this moment of calm. Our lead character is able to stop for a moment but as the camera tracks his shifty eyes, we are able to see what he is watching: doors being locked leaving him confined in a tight space with hundreds of other soldiers. By showing us his perspective, we get a unique display of fear and tension that is not as overt as any of the many scenes of aerial dogfights, sinking boats and fire fights in the streets, yet no less impactful.

Cillian Murphy in Dunkirk. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Nolan’s most talked about cinematic technique in Dunkirk is the fact that the film takes place on three different timelines with each of them being intercut as if they are occurring at the same time. It’s a method by which Nolan is able to link the ebbs and flows of the characters’ experiences across time, compressing a week’s worth of emotion for one character into a day’s worth for another into an hour for another. We are shown glimpses in one timeline of what will happen to a character from another timeline—only stressing the incredibly disorienting and chaotic nature of this event. Time seems to collapse in on itself in Dunkirk with a second often seeming like a lifetime and a minute going by as if it were a second. Though we are shown many differing perspectives in Dunkirk, the way that the film is edited allows everyone’s perspectives to combine in to one communal experience, all united by one common emotion: fear.

The last of The Closer Look’s points is that of the lack of one perspective in the film: the perspective of the enemy. The enemy is not important to Dunkirk because the true enemy is fear. The Germans represent the cascading, steady approach of death that awaits these soldiers—they are not personified because they are not what this story is about. Dunkirk is, as The Closer Look states, not really a war film but, rather, a story about “the pure and total desire to survive” and how far we will go to just keep breathing. In this way, Dunkirk’s humanist spirit comes not from the individual personifications of its characters nor from the conflict with its ‘villain.’ Its humanism comes from Nolan’s ability to coalesce perspective into a communal experience—with each terrified face contributing to a collective whole. MM

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