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The Auteur Rises: Christopher Nolan and Dunkirk on Film

Story added 18th Aug 2017

Dunkirk, directed by Christoper Nolan, is out in cinemas now from Warner Bros


Build film studies tutor Mary Wild on the rise of the film auteur in modern cinema 

The British-American film director, producer, and screenwriter Christopher Nolan is one of the most successful filmmakers of our time. A dedicated cinephile and advocate of film preservation, he builds upon philosophical and existential themes to tell stories related to dystopian fears, the structure of time, moral ambivalence, the nature of memory, and mystery of personal identity. He consistently creates exhilarating worlds on the silver screen, pictures that are phenomenally profitable (his catalogue so far grossing US$4.5 billion worldwide), whilst also tackling intellectually enriching concepts that never fail to captivate the imagination of spectators.

His directorial debut Following (1998) tells the story of a man who pursues strangers around the streets of London and is drawn into a criminal underworld. Nolan received a great deal of praise for his second feature Memento (2000), which portrays a man searching for his wife's murderer whilst struggling with short-term memory loss.

The positive reception of his independent films elevated Nolan’s status in the film industry; he was able to attract a bigger budget to direct the psychological thriller Insomnia (2002), about two Los Angeles homicide detectives investigating a murder in an Alaskan town. His fourth picture, The Prestige (2006), is centered on rival stage magicians who compete relentlessly to create the ultimate stage illusion.

Nolan found further critical acclaim and box office triumph with The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005–2012), putting his unforgettable stamp on the iconic world of Gotham City. Inception (2010), starring the bona fide Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio, revolves around a thief who steals corporate secrets via dream-sharing technology. The mind-bending offering Interstellar (2014) depicts a team of cosmonauts traveling through a wormhole to ensure humanity's survival. In the director’s latest release Dunkirk (2017), allied Belgian, French and British soldiers are surrounded by the German army, and evacuated during a brutal World War II combat.

Nolan has co-written several screenplays with his younger brother Jonathan, and runs the production company Syncopy with his wife Emma Thomas. He has characterised his directorial process as “a combination of intuition and geometry.” The enigmatic drawings of the Dutch artist Escher, known for their sophisticated use of visual illusion and paradoxical perspective, are a source of fascination for Nolan. The director’s world-renowned repertoire consists of maze like plots and nonlinear narratives, with corresponding relationships between the bold visual element, complex script pattern, and vigorously affecting soundtrack. 


The rise of the auteur - Hitchcock, Kubrick, Nolan

Looked upon as an auteur filmmaker, Nolan’s distinctive style frequently showcases arresting cityscapes, muted colours, modern architecture and multifaceted plotlines running in parallel with each other. Aesthetically, he typically prefers striking shadows, documentary style lighting and natural locations rather than the constricted setting of studio work. Nolan has revealed that the film noir genre has inspired a number of his projects. He relies on editing as a technique to convey the inner world of characters, colliding their subjectivity with that of viewers. The foremost motif that continuously recurs in his work is the concept of time, specifically the experiential aspect of time, which is deeply subjective, following an unpredictable and often non-linear course.

It has been claimed that Christopher Nolan is a natural inheritor of Stanley Kubrick’s legacy, given that both directors have employed intensely gripping techniques to master genres as diverse as science fiction, the war epic, thrillers and dystopian cinema. Dunkirk (2017) certainly lends support to that claim, approaching the subject of military conflict in a Kubrickian way to highlight incompatible forces in the context of war, with a reluctance to reach a neat, earnest conclusion about the outcome of armed violence.

There is also an undeniable Hitchcockian influence in the film, relying on suspense as a device to immerse the viewer in the inescapable sense of uncertainty that is connected to the story of the Dunkirk battle. The physicality of the story was absolutely essential for Nolan to communicate; he wanted to use the cinematic medium to create an authentic phenomenological event for the audience.

The power of the cinematography simultaneously delineates vast beachfronts, imposing air raids, the besieged English Channel and the subjective point-of-view of bewildered soldiers caught up in the chaos of war. The bone-chilling music composed by Nolan’s regular collaborator Hans Zimmer compounds the immersive effect of the film, amplifying anxiety in every frame with a bespoke sensational score. The script is sparse but impactful, cutting across a range of different plotlines along various timelines, creating a predominantly action-led narrative. Dunkirk is ultimately a story about human frailty and the way ordinary people react to the survival impulse.

How exciting to enter the discourse of a cinema auteur and explore their symbolic universe! Christopher Nolan’s work is important because he brings artistic merit to the landscape of mainstream, profitable cinema. In defiance of conventional blockbuster escapism, his movies are rare gems: dark, riveting tales where complex ideas are developed with great style and inventiveness.

Mary Wild teaches various film studies courses at Build, including a recent course exploring the career and directing style of Christopher Nolan. Dunkirk is available on DVD now, and is a Warner Bros production.


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