Dunkirk is one of the most atypical war films, in which Nolan switches from the naturalistic horrors of war, paying significant attention to the psychological plane. The movie describes the Dunker miracle when hundreds of small civilian ships transported thousands of Dutch, French, and British soldiers across the English Channel blockaded by the Nazis during the Second World War (Nolan). The main goal for the director was to create a unique emotional connection, a feeling of involvement, and completely immerse the viewer in what is happening on the screen. For this purpose, Nolan used all the available possibilities of filmic elements, including sound and editing, which contributes to Dunkirk’s content, catching the attention of the viewer owing to its perfect combination.
Dunkirk mostly uses discontinuity editing, applying a linear and coherent narration only at the beginning of the film, which follows the principle of classical drama, luring the viewer into the hook. The rest is movement, which is more jagged and jerky, consisting of snippets rather than uniform, as used in traditional storytelling with continuity editing. It affects the transfer of high stakes, acute conflict, and the heroes’ intelligible goal to complete the combat mission, save the trapped allies, and survive on their own. Nolan creates a system of episodes, in each of which there is tension. In particular, an example is an episode when the hero of Tom Hardy goes to a new circle, in which discontinuity editing helps to create an extraordinary intensity of the situation (Nolan). Thus, I think the filmmakers chose this option to skillfully convey the fact that any moment can turn into death for the heroes.
The film uses types of parallel editing to create tension and intensify episodes. Specifically, Nolan embodies three storylines on screen; one of them occurs in the air, where two pilots on fighters perform a mission to protect retreating. The second sends the viewer to sea on a civilian ship and makes them feel the inner strength of ordinary sailors who are not ready to stand aside when the soldiers need help. Finally, the third storyline of Dunkirk unfolds on the ground where the surrounded soldiers are stationed. Nolan skillfully combines these three parallel lines, constantly leaving the onlookers in suspense, not allowing them to be distracted for a second. As a result, the feeling of danger is throughout the film, not only next to the characters but also with the viewer. Therefore, parallel editing types convey the heroism of not individual people, but of all them together, and show not separate heroes with their tragedies, but a common disaster.
The sound used in this film is mainly diegetic since the roar of engines, the lapping of waves, and the crashing of bombs, which are in the world of Dunkirk, and not beyond, are dominated. The sounds are not less spectacular than the image. For example, a chronometer sound, a well-known method of sharpening the viewer’s perception, is used in Dunkirk as an auditory metaphor to show such oppositions as finitude and eternity and life and death. The film appeals to various sound effects, such as bomb noises, but unlike the typical bomb drop in movies, when the sound becomes quieter before falling, filmmakers do the opposite (Gray). Thus, the creation of atypical sound and its effects allows to convey the feeling of physical presence and the chaos of war.
To summarize, sound and editing bring a significant contribution to the content of Dunkirk. Discontinuity editing, consisting of the mismatch of elements, diegetic sound, and parallel narrative create a special tension. The film shows not individual events on land, in the sea, or in the air, but everything as a whole, and the inseparable connection of all these components makes the viewer feel everything for themselves. All of it together makes Dunkirk a drama of the most substantial emotional level, showing that survival in this hell for the sake of future wins is already a victory.
Gray, Tim. “How Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ Team Captured the Sounds of Battle.” Variety, 2017.
Nolan, Christopher, director. Dunkirk. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2017.