As the 90th Academy Awards ceremony have come and gone, the nominees for Best Picture have enjoyed a brief surge in popularity. Among the Best Picture nominees is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, telling the story of British soldiers evacuating France in 1940 under the threat of Nazi occupation. The film was met with critical success – stellar reviews and a slew of other Oscar nominations such as Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Original Score, and the much-coveted award for Best Director.
That being said, the film has not been unanimously praised. David Cox of the Guardian called the film “bloodless, boring, and empty,” honing in on the film’s lack of compelling or relatable characters, its most notable weak-point. Jacques Mandelbaum of Le Monde rightfully criticized the film for underplaying the crucial role of French soldiers in the evacuation. But no review of Dunkirk stirred up quite as much discussion as Washington Post’s piece by Richard Cohen titled “Dunkirk is a war film for the Trump era.”
Students of history will pick up on Dunkirk’s noticeable omission; the army attacking the English soldiers are never referred to as “the Germans,” but instead are simply called “the Enemy.” The planes flown by the Enemy are not decked with swastikas, as real German planes would have been. Cohen says that Nolan “had an obligation to suggest” the horrors that were going on beyond the Dunkirk front – the Holocaust, which the British soldiers and citizens depicted in the film would not have known about in 1940, and the 1944 massacre of 84 American POWs, which had not happened yet.
Viewers confounded with Nolan’s absence of visible Nazis and Nazism need to consider the narrative focus of the film. Dunkirk is not about Nazis, it’s about survival, the miraculous escape, and the patriotism that emerged as a result.
All the people who have so aggressively criticized Dunkirk’s treatment of the Nazis seem to have forgotten why filmmakers and storytellers will take artistic liberties with true stories in the first place – namely, to tell a more interesting and compelling story. If a director wants to adapt a historic event to film, they are entitled to change certain details in order to make it more palatable for audiences. Captain “Sully” Sullenberger’s story was given additional conflict when it was adapted to Sully, and P.T. Barnum wasn’t quite as charming as The Greatest Showman would have you believe. When you compare an adaptation to the history it’s based on, it should become apparent there is a necessary divide between history and film. And this divide is fine, if audiences understand the difference and don’t get all of their history lessons from movies.
Biopics and historical films have had more than their fair share of Nazis. From Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator to Downfall, we’ve seen a garden variety of Hitler portrayals. If a viewer takes issue with how Dunkirk fails to portray Nazis and the evil they perpetrated, then there are dozens of films which portray the evils of Nazism that they can choose from – Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, Rome Open City, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, to name a few. The burden of portraying Nazis is not on Dunkirk alone, especially when dozens (probably hundreds) of other films have already done this.
Additionally, cinema has had its fair share of fictional Nazis – especially in films such as Inglourious Basterds and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Not to mention all of the fictional Nazi-inspired groups, like Star Wars’ Empire and First Order or Harry Potter’s Death Eaters. Sometimes, it’s not exactly subtle, as in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which has a character standing in front of large red banners shouting angrily to his army about the power of a weapon of mass destruction and their military prowess. But as far as Nazi-like characters are concerned, subtlety is not entirely necessary.
In fact, Nazis and Nazi-related imagery have become cinematic shorthand – these characters always are and always should be synonymous with evil. So when a movie has a character who wears a red arm-band or standing in front of a large red banners that has a swastika-like insignia on it, viewers are supposed to understand that these characters are the story’s equivalent of Nazis and will (hopefully) be inclined to root against them. This is a vital storytelling technique for franchises like Harry Potter and Star Wars, because the broad theme in those franchises is good-versus-evil.
Dunkirk does the opposite. The enemies in Dunkirk are Nazis, but they remain almost faceless and unseen. Showing airplanes emblazoned with swastikas would have done too much to rouse the passions and politics of a modern audience. Such imagery would emotionally distract viewers; they would have become prone to feelings of anger and hatred, where they should be feeling what the characters feel; fear, desperation, and ultimately, patriotism.
Nolan’s artistic liberty has garnered the reaction that it has for a very simple reason: naturally, people have very strong feelings about Nazis and the genocide they were responsible for. Nolan has not forgotten about the Holocaust or the Nazis, but in Dunkirk, he wasn’t telling their story. Dunkirk chooses to focus instead on the stories of English soldiers and citizens, presenting the dangers and horrors of war rather than politics of it. Nolan’s film doesn’t have swastikas and refers to the Nazis “the enemy” for a very clear reason: it’s not their story.