German soldiers are conspicuously absent in Dunkirk. There’s a character in one of the three entwining, parable-like narratives who might or might not be German (playing a double-entendre with the title of the beach segments: “The Mole”), but full-uniform Nazis barely exist in physical form. Instead, Christopher Nolan treats their presence as an abstract: the roar of gunfire ripping through hulls and bodies; leaflets falling on the titular French city; the horrific, deafening whine of approaching Luftwaffe, bombing and gunning down shivering, panic-stricken Tommies. They aren’t an army, but an all-consuming specter, a chilling reminder from the past threatening to push people into the sea. Tellingly, one character intones to another, shell-shocked one, “There won’t be a home if we allow a slaughter across the channel.”
To that end, Nolan not only centers the retreating British, but hones in on their psychological state. The three stories–a private waiting rescue on the beach, a mariner who volunteers with his son and a hired hand to aid the evacuation, and one of the Spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy) sent to protect the ships and soldiers–are told in concurrent non-linearity. Action is not relayed spatially or tactically, but emotionally. Montage is used often to portray characters experiencing the same traumas of war (drowning in a sunken ship is a recurring one) simultaneously at different points in time. While Nolan and editor Lee Smith treat this as an effective tension-builder, particularly when paired with the booming sound design and Hans Zimmer’s Shepard tone score, the way characters and situations align also taps into the collective mindset of people fleeing violence and nationalism in search of a home.