Second World War

Dunkirk (2017)

War is hell. Absolute hell.

And that is exactly what Christopher Nolan has chosen to portray in his latest venture, Dunkirk. However, unlike Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge with their glorious actions sequences, Dunkirk rather takes on a subdued approach to the war.

Christopher Nolan is an absolute visionary of a director, with his back catalogue including Interstellar, The Prestige and the Batman trilogy. It’s an absolute change of pace from showing the quest to leave the planet, to the evacuation of Dunkirk, a key point during the Second World War for the British forces.

What’s always been interesting in Nolan’s filmmaking is that he shows a diverse range of how to tell a story from Momento to The Prestige. He chooses to have Dunkirk shown in a linear method with three intersecting stories from the air, the sea and the ground. And that is where we find Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) running the streets of Dunkirk eluding German fire as ‘We Surround You’ flyers cascade around him in one tense sequence.

And the tension doesn’t stop there. For the entirety of the film, the tension never takes it foot off the pedal. The constant changing of the tempo between the land, the sea and the air was crucial to keep the tension at boiling point throughout Dunkirk.

Christopher Nolan also manages to convincingly display glimpses into the hellishness of war, channelled mostly through Cillian Murphy’s shell-shocked soldier and his apprehension to continue heading into battle. But also the recognition from the civilian perspective, as Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his father, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), share a nuanced nod to not disclose information to the shell-shocked soldier aboard.

The narrative choice is possibly one of the most interesting choices, but it is key for the tension to be kept at a high level. But what is more interesting there is a certain absence of a traditional protagonist held within the film, but rather having The Mole, The Sea and The Air being characters within their own right and having characters placed throughout.

Normally Christopher Nolan allows the screen to be drenched in the characters, giving them time to be invested in, but the narrative method doesn’t allow this as time became a key factor in each of the segments. But there comes in the brilliance of the cast behind Nolan’s Dunkirk. Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh managing to exhibit the perfect amount of emotion that is needed regardless of how bleak the situation is and regardless of the screen time, especially when Home arrives.

Long-standing music collaborator Hans Zimmer chose to intertwine his score with occasional ticking, giving that reminder time is incredibly precious in these situations. This motif is carried throughout the three segments, as Farrier (Tom Hardy) keeps a close eye on the time to gauge his fuel.

Dunkirk is an incredible piece of filmmaking and Christopher Nolan showed a wonderful skill of narrative structure as the film progressed through it’s 100+ minute runtime and the motif use of time. The cast gave unbelievable performances, especially for the screen time each member received. It is potentially the tensest I’ve been in a cinema when watching a film and it was incredible.

Without the need to show the explicit war sequences, Christopher Nolan managed to give Dunkirk an incredible feel for the war by the incredibly loud action sequences from the get-go. By having the air sequences shot incredibly close to the nose was great and incredibly effective for what was needed on the screen. Overall, there’s little to dislike with Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan continues his incredible visionary filmmaking and remains one of the best directors in the business today.

Das Boot (1981)

During the late seventies and early eighties, some of the greatest war movies were produced, including The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. Das Boot is commonly known for being a war epic, but that long war film in a submarine. Depending on which version you have seen, Das Boot can range from 150 minutes to 293 minutes.

I managed to find a version that fell in between. It was the director’s cut that stood at 209 minutes, which is still quite substantial for a films runtime. Set during the Second World War, Das Boot opens with quite a harrowing message stating that of the 40,000 men deployed on German U-Boats during the war, only 10,000 actually returned.

Many of the aforementioned films are taken from the viewpoint of Allied soldiers, which created some entertaining and memorable viewing. Wolfgang Petersen chose to spin it and have Das Boot centralised through Hitler’s soldiers being deployed to the North Atlantic. Their aim was to destroy the American convoys sent to aid Great Britain during the wartime effort.

As I mentioned, Petersen chose to open with the statement on the 10,000 men returning but immediately juxtaposes this against a lavish party scene involving all the fresh-faced sailors that are set to leave La Rochelle in the morning. This party scene begins familiarising the characters including Lt. Werner (Herbert Gronemeyer), the captain and chief engineer (Jurgen Prochnow and Klaus Wennemann, respectively) of the U-Boat, that departs in the morning.

This joyous occasion becomes infectious, as you begin to forget the ominous message that was displayed previously. As the Captain and his crew board the new U-96 submarine, Petersen really puts the use of claustrophobia as the crew sprint around the submarine to find their quarters and store their belongings, as they sail out to the North Atlantic Sea.

Wolfgang Petersen chose to have the communications between the U-Boats and their command post rather unreliable and visibly frustrating for the Captain and the Chief Engineer, especially as they begin to think they are floating aimlessly in the North Atlantic. In between the frustrating lack of communications and the gruelling weather the U-Boat has to manoeuvre through, they nearly crash into a friendly U-Boat commanded by the decorated drunk veteran Thomsen. (Otto Sander)

As time wears on, it becomes visible in the faces of the frustrating crew and especially the two leading men on the U-Boat. Their newly-grown facial hair and the darkening bags under their eyes become ever present over their meagre dinner conversations. As people push past the captain’s quarters, the cramped area of the submarine is really accentuated throughout, especially as the time wears on causing visible frustration.

As well as masterfully showing the claustrophobia that is throughout the submarine, he also manages to create a great deal of tense sequences throughout Das Boot. During the U-Boat’s misinformed travels in the North Atlantic, Allied destroyers constantly disrupt their operation, which signals the beginning of said tense affairs. As the captain peers over the water level, he notices the forthcoming destroyer and screams “Alarm! Alarm!” which sets the submarine in motion to dive in attempt to avoid the oncoming battleship.

Petersen continued this with the use of the Allied sonars trying to spot the U-Boat. As you hear the ping against the hull, the silence amongst the crew is quite deafening. Das Boot is one of the tensest affairs I have watched, as the submarine seems to become a magnet for misfortune. As they dive trying to escape the Allied war ships, they continually test the submarines diving level, but it’s the way Petersen uses the sounds as though the boat is tearing itself apart as it dives to further depths.

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With the help of the soldiers being characters that are likeable and understandably frustrated, you begin to want these soldiers to not meet the perilous fate that was defined in the opening seconds of Das Boot. Wolfgang Petersen’s ability to make the audience forget that these are actually Nazi soldiers really helped this along. Their gruelling adventures in the North Atlantic and tense sequences throughout really help the daunting runtime seem effortless. (Well, the runtime that I saw) 

Petersen manages to break up the tense sequences throughout as the Captain demands the Chief Engineer continually test the depth of the submarine, but also by having the soldiers seem unified in their own war effort. They celebrate the torpedo strikes, but also have a sing-song during the opening hour with ‘It’s A Long Road to Tipperary’.

As I mentioned, this film is from the viewpoint of Nazi soldiers of Hitler Germany, but this isn’t pushed at all throughout the film, which really helps Petersen’s film through the lengthy runtime. Das Boot is best viewed in it’s original language and is one of better films to be produced amongst some of the best war films around. The way Petersen bought together the characters throughout the film and had the claustrophobia looming large was very effective throughout, but the lasting image is the faces of the men as they hear the ping of the sonar. Das Boot is perhaps the tensest I’ve felt during a film, and it was great.