Dunkirk, such a manner that it creates a

Dunkirk, a film by Christopher Nolan, is a depiction of the
evacuation of allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk in May 1940. The
Germans had advanced their line into France, isolating and confining over 400,000
men onto a small stretch of land. Demoralised and suffering from fatigue, hope
was dwindling and the prospects of rescue were fading with every passing
minute. With support from naval and air forces, troops were methodically
evacuated from the beachfront using a range of civilian and naval vessels. Initially
it was estimated that just 45,000 men could be evacuated in 48 hours. Instead
the operation was to become the biggest evacuation in military history. Over
the period of nine gruelling days over 338,000 soldiers were rescued from the
beaches of Dunkirk.


Christopher Nolan, and composer Hans Zimmer, use sound as a
pivotal device in developing an immersive experience for the audience. Not only
this, but sound is used in such a manner that it creates a visceral tension and
suspense which provides Dunkirk with a truly immersive sound world. In this
essay, I will be analysing the creative strategies that are used in this film
to develop immersion and, above all, an overwhelming sense of tension.


A central component which Zimmer uses to intensify scenes
and develop a heightened level of tension is a device known as Shepard tone. Modernclassical.com
(2004) highlights that ‘Shepard tone, named after Roger Shepard, is a sound
consisting of a superposition of sine waves separated by octaves. When played
with the base pitch of the tone moving upwards or downwards, it is referred to
as the Shepard scale. This creates the auditory illusion of a tone that
continually ascends or descends in pitch, yet which ultimately seems to get no
higher or lower.’ Early on in production, Christopher Nolan focused his
attention towards the sound world of the film. He wanted to establish a sense
of ongoing tension that appears to never pause; he did so to personify the
understandable sense of hopelessness and desperation that the soldiers were
undoubtedly facing.


Guerrasio of Business insider (2017) stated that Christopher
Nolan selected an old watch of his, which had a ‘particularly insistent
ticking,’ he then recorded this sound and sent it off to Hans Zimmer, who then
built the score around this particular sound. The distinct sound of ticking is a
common occurrence in the works of Hans Zimmer; it can be witnessed in such
films as Interstellar (2014), Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011) and of
course Dunkirk. The analogy of a barber’s pole would be an appropriate
representation of Shepard Tone, the illusion is that the level of sound is
rising however there is actually no fluctuation in pitch or tone. Nolan’s films
are often all about time; how it affects memories such as in Inception and how it
affects time such as in Interstellar, with this there is an obligatory sense of
tension. However, with the implementation of Shepard Tone in Dunkirk, this such
tension is unequivocally palpable.


The narrative of the film follows the evacuation from three
perspectives: the beached troops, Britain’s Royal Air Force, and that of a
civilian boat captain. Dominique Digital’s YouTube video (2017) includes an
interview of Christopher Nolan explaining how he wanted to construct a visceral
experience, specifically of the aerial dog fight scenes, for the audience. He
wanted to present the reality of being confined into an aeroplane’s cockpit, he
described it as an ‘intimate physicality’ that the pilots had to withstand for
hours on end. It was this particular feeling that Nolan wanted to reflect onto
the audience. It would be unachievable to recreate the raw emotion of the adrenaline
produced, from being involved in an actual dog fight, and transfer it over to
an audience without using certain innovative techniques. In Richard Smith’s
book about the sociologist Jean Baudrillard (2015: p.156), it is stated that
‘the art world… is incompatible with reality,’ in this it is suggested that in
order to devise an impactful film then certain aspects need to be exaggerated
or reduced rather than trying to produce an accurate representation of history.

Thus, it is far more advantageous to try to recreate an emotion.


In the initial aerial engagement, Nolan creates a hyper
reality, in which authenticity plays a slightly minor role behind developing an
impression of tension. An example of this, is when a squadron of RAF spitfires
are battling a couple of Luftwaffe Messerschmitts. After bringing down one of
the German planes It becomes somewhat a cat and mouse chase until the enemy
plane disappears from view. At this point, there is only the diagetic sound
originating from the spitfire’s engine. This juxtaposed with the wide shots of
the silent and empty sky creates a palpable tension. With no warning, the
presence of the remaining Messerschmitt becomes distinguishable as it dive
bombs down onto the RAF planes. The Luftwaffe planes were equipped with
Daimler-Benz DB 605 engines which were by no means quiet; Nolan intentionally
only implemented the roaring sound of the engine just as the German passes the
protagonist in the spitfire. A more accurate representation of this encounter
would be for both pilot to have at least a general awareness of the opposing
plane’s location, however Nolan used this technique of developing a hyper
reality and it is very effective in portraying chaos and pandemonium which
encourages the audience to support the protagonist and his plight for survival.


Dunkirk, unlike most other war films, does not start
chronologically with a scene depicting the beginning of a battle nor does it
begin with soldiers right in the midst of a fight. However, its inception
manifests itself within a scene depicting British soldiers experiencing, one of
the often unshown aspects of war depicted in films, the longevity of warfare. The
audience witnesses this fatigued group of men scrounging around in an abandoned
French costal town, searching for food and water. In this inaugural scene, we
are only initially presented with purely diagetic sounds. In films, such as
Dunkirk, where conveying a particular emotion takes its place at the top of the
hierarchy, it is imperative to introduce the characters in a manner that
efficiently and intelligently allows the audience to recognise how these characters
wound up in this situation. As we are not shown events prior to the lead up to
the opening scene, we rely on both visual and auditory clues to fill in the
gaps of unknown information. The acclaimed director Andrei Tarkovsky, similarly
to Christopher Nolan, liked to implement entire scenes that were supported
exclusively by natural diagetic sounds, such as fire, wind and rain. According
to James Eugene Wierzbicki (2012: p.34), ‘natural elements featured prominently
in Tarkovsky’s films. Earth, water, wind and fire… are used metaphorically.’ We
can apply this analysis to the opening scene of Dunkirk, where we are exhibited
with only the presence of wind, void of any non-diagetic sounds. The inclusion
of gusts of wind emphasises an overwhelming sense of dereliction and the
outcome of this is that the scene feels incredibly atmospheric and poignant. It
could be argued that the familiar sound of wind creates an illusion of
tranquillity and serenity. However, this illusion is soon revealed to be an
ephemeral deception of peace as a vicious barrage of bullets provides the
juxtaposition which inevitably fractures this effect. The wind could also be
interpreted as a metaphor for ‘the calm before the storm,’ this is
foreshadowing the brutal events that populates the film’s climax.


The avant-garde Michel Chion, examined the connection
between sound and moving image. In his book, Audiovisual (1994: p.216), he
stated that audiences enter an audiovisual contract, which is ‘a kind of
symbolic contract the audio-viewer enters into, agreeing to think of sound and
image as forming a single entity.’ Filmsound examines this psychological
response further; ‘the audiovisual relationship is not natural but rather a
sort of symbolic pact to which the audio-spectator agrees to forget that sound
is coming from loudspeakers and picture from the screen. The audio-spectator
considers the elements of sound and image to be participating in one the same
entity or world.’ The significance of this being that sound plays a crucial
role in captivating an audience and furthermore continues to play a key role in
maintaining this engagement. The perpetual inclusion of the methodical ticking
clock sound, although artificially manufactured, it provides a familiar element
to the film’s sound world. The majority of the audience will not have
experience war and so the implementation of such a familiar sound helps to
convey certain connotations which, like Chion aforementioned, match the visual
emotions of tension and pressure. Comparing Dunkirk to, the 1998 Oscar winner
for sound mixing, Saving Private Ryan we see a reversal of events; an invasion
on the beaches of Normandy opposed to the evacuation of beaches in Dunkirk.

Although, these scenes may be perceived as dissimilar we can observe some
notable comparisons. Both films, use sound in a plethora of ways but they also
implement a reduction of sound across a few scenes; including a total admission
of all audio. This juxtaposition between intense noise and silence creates a
jarring effect which personifies the emotional impact that the soldiers would
be experiencing in such unnaturally barbaric circumstances. The silence could
also be perceived as a metaphor for debilitating neural disorders, such as
PTSD, associated with war. WebMD (2001) states that PTSD is ‘a serious mental
condition that some people develop after a shocking, terrifying, or dangerous
event,’ this is depicted in the scenes where there is an audio blackout. Silence
is often used to influence and direct the audience’s attention, often promoting
raw emotion which otherwise would have been drowned out by clamour of
background noise. In Dunkirk, we witness two shots; one of a plane dive bombing
the beach and the other the reaction from the defenceless soldiers on the
beach. Elements of Cinema (2004) highlighted that Lev Kuleshov, a Soviet
Filmmaker, proclaimed that two juxtaposing images edited into an adjacent order
forces the audience to draw further meaning, regardless of how trivial the
initial shot may or may not be. In this scenario, the dive bomber plane shots
cut with the reactions of the soldiers enforces the audience to perceive the
men isolated on the beach as being utterly helpless. The mechanical power of
the plane juxtaposed with the vulnerability, that all humans share, encourages
the audience to cement their allegiances with the underdogs, in this case the


In reflection, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk implements an array
of sound devices that maximises the audience’s immersion and engagement. These
techniques lay the foundations which creates a riveting narrative and aids in
developing a mesmeric sound world. The impact of utilising such devices as
Shepard Tone, sounds derived from the natural world (i.e the sound of wind) and
quiescence promotes the audience into accepting what they see as truth, thus
encouraging them into an audiovisual contract. All these minor factors
accumulate stimulating the audience’s sense of imagination and subsequently
constitutes in them accepting the information conveyed, whether it be visual or
audio, across the course of the film.