“Time, printed in its factual forms and manifestations: such is the supreme idea of cinema as art.” – Andrei Tarkovsky
Few subjects have so vexed the human mind as time. It is both central to our subjectivity and, like the very fact of subjectivity itself, seemingly impossible to define. Perhaps the most famous answer to the question “What is time?” comes from Saint Augustine: “If no one asks me, I know. If I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not.” Scientists have had scarcely more luck. The Austrian physicist Ernst Mach unsatisfactorily defined time “an abstraction we arrive at through the changes of things.” Only filmmakers, in their masterful ability to manipulate our experience of time, have arrived at some measure of understanding. I suspect that, if one were to pose the question “What is time?” to Christopher Nolan, his response might look something like Dunkirk.
Nolan has been exploring the experience of time since at least 2000’s Memento, which was told in reverse order to highlight its subject’s amnesia. His last film, Interstellar, took this exploration further, dealing explicitly with the relative nature of time as a story element. Nolan has said that time itself was the antagonist of Interstellar, and in a curious respect the same could be said of Dunkirk. Though ostensibly a war film, Dunkirk isn’t concerned with the Allies’ battle against the Germans so much as the various countdowns this battle creates. Indeed we scarcely glimpse “the enemy” at all throughout the film’s two-hour runtime. Rather, we follow soldiers and civilians as they battle the ticking clock — until the enemy’s arrival, the detonation of a torpedo, the sinking of a plane or ship. Unlike Interstellar, Dunkirk requires no science-laden exposition to instill the fear of time; we experience it directly, through the eyes of the characters.
Although the film’s time-puzzle structure — which intercuts a week on land, a day at sea, and an hour in the air — recalls the labyrinthine structure of Memento and Inception, this is not merely the Nolanization of a war film. The structure is justified by the nature of the event, or rather in the experiences of those involved in the event. “It’s all about point of view,” Nolan told IGN, “It became apparent to me that in order to build up a coherent picture of the larger events of Dunkirk, without jumping out to a different perspective where you have generals in rooms in rooms pushing things around on maps, it’s necessary to divide point of view into three different strands…so that with each strand you’re telling the story intensively, subjectively.” To attempt to collapse these various points of view into a single linear narrative wouldn’t have done justice to the subjectivity of those who fought.
There’s a subtly subversive claim being made here about war, and about the mythology that surrounds famous battles like Dunkirk. Nolan’s view is that our picture of such events becomes distorted to the degree that it is removed from the individual, subjective perspectives of those involved. The story of the battle of Dunkirk is not the history of the battle of Dunkirk. Any meanings we make after the fact are secondary to the moment-by-moment experience of the event in real time. Indeed, the film ignores vast swaths of information that make up our historical account of Dunkirk, including the hotly debated “Halt Order” issued by the Germans at the time. Because the soldiers would not have known about this, the audience is not told, and the grip of the tension is sustained. Likewise, at the end of the film, when the soldiers believe they are returning disgraced for not having fought, we share in their delight upon discovering that they are seen as heroes merely for surviving.
Nolan’s commitment to subjectivity is often ignored or downright denied by those who view his films as cold, geometrical puzzles. In a widely circulated piece from The Dissolve, the critic Mike D’Angelo claimed that “Nolan is a die-hard materialist. Underlying nearly every film he’s ever made, no matter how fanciful, is his conviction that the universe can be explained entirely by physical processes.” But, of course, every one of Nolan’s films deals intimately with subjectivity — not as neurons firing but as living, conscious experience. Far from denying non-physical realities, he is constantly attempting to understand them. Nolan is thus not a materialist but a rationalist. If he is often accused of bloodlessness, it is not because he is coldly detached but because he believes our minds have structure, and that this structure can be reflected at the narrative level.
Part of what makes Dunkirk such a turning point for Nolan is that, for the first time, he has managed to use a structural conceit in a way that reads on a purely emotional level. Unlike Memento, The Prestige, and Interstellar, Dunkirk does not for a moment feel like an intellectual exercise, even as it unfolds with impeccable precision. It is not an overstatement to say that one could understand the entire film without catching a single line of dialogue, and indeed the editing often favors pacing and momentum over the lines the characters speak. I’ll go further: it would be impossible to understand the film in terms of “physical processes” or any concrete description of the events on screen because the drama consists almost entirely in the impression of time it creates, the “abstraction we arrive at through the changes of things.”
Thus we can say that Nolan’s most realistic film to date is also his most subjective. His first historical film is also his most immediate, most firmly rooted in the now. After all, it is only the lived experience of time that orients us as individuals in the grand sweep of history. As Martin Amis wrote in Time’s Arrow (which appears on Murph’s bookshelf in Interstellar), time is “the human dimension, which makes us everything we are.”
Understanding the experience of time is, therefore, a vital part of the filmmaker’s task: to bridge the unbridgeable gap between one person’s subjectivity and another’s. As Nolan himself put it, “we are all stuck in a very singular point of view, a singular perspective on what we all agree to be an objective reality, and movies are one of the ways in which we try to see things from the same point of view.” In a way, Nolan’s entire career has been an attempt to make the subjective objective: to provide a basis for convergence on slippery subjects like memories, myths, and dreams. Now, in Dunkirk, he turns his lens on history — or, perhaps, on time itself.