Christopher Nolan Explains Dunkirk’s Triptych Storytelling


The prospect of a new Christopher Nolan film is always something to look forward to, with the British director making a habit of defying audience expectations with his bold, cerebral storytelling. His latest, WWII drama Dunkirk, is just a couple of months away now and Nolan has revealed some tantalizing new details in an interview with the French Premiere magazine.

“The film is told from three points of view. The air (planes), the land (on the beach) and the sea (the evacuation by the navy). For the soldiers involved in the conflict, the events took place in these different temporalities. On land, the soldiers were stuck on the beach for one week. On the water, the events lasted one day. If you were flying to Dunkirk, the British spitfires could carry just an hour of fuel. To intertwine these different historical accounts, we had to mix the temporal strata. Hence the complicated structure even though the story is, essentially, very simple.”

The director is, of course, no stranger to complicated narrative structure, baffling audiences with the time-shifting shenanigans at the climax of Interstellar (not to mention the famously brain-bending plot of Inception). Judging by his description, Dunkirk won’t be any easier going. For my part, the idea of weaving together the three different perspectives sounds like a fascinating cinematic experiment, one he’s uniquely suited to execute.

Nolan then went on to explain the emotions he’s trying to capture:

“I wanted to see the surprise and frustration of the forces stuck in Dunkirk. Someone who arrived on that beach in May 1940 had no idea of the numbers involved, the specific facts, or the historical perspective. From their perspective it must have been terrifying. It was a Kafkaesque situation. Huge queues of people trapped on the beach with no-one to tell them what to do, or who to ask. The feeling that you’re in the wrong place. That you’re probably going to die. That’s what I want the viewer to go through.”

It sounds intense. Still, Joe Wright’s 2007 Atonement, which featured the same incident in a seriously impressive one-take set piece, is still fresh in audience’s minds. That achievement leaves Nolan a pretty steep hill to climb in order to top it. Whatever you make of his labyrinthine storytelling techniques, you have to admit he’s a director possessed of a singular ability to push the boundaries of modern cinema.

Dunkirk opens on July 21st, starring an impressive cast that includes Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy and, intriguingly, One Direction’s Harry Styles.