The film ‘Dunkirk’ directed by Christopher Nolan, is a very tense and fast-paced film, gradually building up the sense of tension and anxiety in the audience as the film progresses. A few important techniques Christopher Nolan used to achieve these reactions include lighting and non-diegetic sounds such as Shepard Tone and the ticking of the watch.
Dunkirk is a film based on the real-life events of the evacuations on Dunkirk beach during World War ll, where approximately 850 civilian boats came to rescue the soldiers off the beach and managed to save around 336,000 soldiers, Christopher Nolan’s intent for this film was to create a realistic experience for the audience and to create a film from the point of view of the soldiers.
Lighting was a very important technique for effectively creating tension in the film. This LOW KEY LIGHTING technique is effectively used in the scene on the beach called “The despair scene” where we see the soldiers on the beach, the sky is overcast and dark grey, Tommy, Alex and Gibson (the 3 main soldiers on the land) watch a soldier walk into the sea in his attempt to ‘swim’ back home. Typically he used dark, gloomy colours such as grey and black which are often associated with sadness, mourning and death. Nolan uses the technique of lighting in different scenes to induce the feeling of anxiety in the audience and for the characters in the scene. This helped to give the viewers a larger sense of sorrow towards the soldiers trying to get off the beach. Nolan also uses this technique in the scene of the sinking fishing trawler, when the soldiers are drowning, all the light disappears and the entire scene goes pitch black as the soldiers submerge in the water, trying to escape the ship. This helped with the sense of anxiety as the scene went dark, it made the scene feel more claustrophobic as if the walls were closing in on them. This is also tied to the theme of survival.
Christopher Nolan uses the technique of non-diegetic sounds to make the viewers feel more anxious and tense for the characters in the film. One of the non-diegetic sounds Nolan uses is called Shepard Tone which is used in an original score created by Hans Zimmer called ‘The mole’ which creates the illusion that the song is building up which in turn creates tension. Nolan uses this score in multiple scenes in this film, one of those scenes include the stretcher scene, in this scene, Tommy and Gibson are running to get an injured soldier (and hopefully themselves) onto the ship that is about to leave. As they are running the music plays and helps to build tension and feeling of ‘are they going to make it off the beach’. Nolan also used Shepard tone in some of his other films including inception and interstellar to raise the levels of anxiety and tension throughout the audience.
Another technique used in this film includes another non-diegetic sound that came right off of Christoper Nolan’s own stopwatch. The ticking sound used in this film was tied closely to the theme of time running out. This ticking sound can be heard all throughout the film but was really significant during the scene in which Farrier’s fuel gauge is broken, there is a close up of his watch, broken gauge and of Farriers face, the combination of the close-ups and the non-diegetic sound helped to build the sense of tension and even helped to build up one of the main themes and plot lines for his character. This technique was also used to create tension with its absence since the ticking sound was heard all throughout the film when it finally stopped in a scene near the end of the film when Farriers fuel had officially run out. The scene went silent it created the feeling that time had officially run out. Once again using that theme of time running out.
Christopher Nolan used many techniques in the film ‘Dunkirk’ to achieve the creation of feelings of tension and anxiety in the audience. All these techniques he used were effective and greatly match the purpose of the film. Lighting and non-diegetic sounds such as the ticking watch and Shepard tone were used in the making of the film to achieve this. Overall the film ‘Dunkirk’ directed by Christopher Nolan was a successful and enjoyable film that greatly portrayed the events on Dunkirk beach during World War II.