As slowly, but very surely, autumn sets in, life relocates from the outside to the inside. At least here in Germany, where temperatures dropped below 15 degrees Celsius regularly and it starts to rain all day. Most boats are in winter storage already or are currently are being hauled out of the water. Since I am boat-less anyway, let´s check for another movie! This weekend I finally managed to watch Christopher Nolan´s “Dunkirk” and after having seen it twice I really don´t know why I missed it for so long: It is a true masterpiece!

The (no spoilers!) story of “Dunkirk”

The film has been released in 2017. It´s a stalwart war movie but – as a Nolan-movie we can surely expect that – made in a very special way. Dunkirk, or as written in French Dunkerque, is a little town situated at the shores of the English Channel. It was the place where the whole British Expedition Corps got encircled by the German Wehrmacht and total annihilation was impeding. With “Operation Dynamo” the British high command tried to evacuate those approximately 340.000 men.

Dunkerque, June 1940

The movie shows in a very intimate, close-up, urging, futile, stirring and absolutely breathtaking way how this happened. Nolan choses to follow three characters through this chaotic roller coaster of events, intricately interweaving their story lines and – of course a specialty of Nolan as we all know – jumping back and forth in time, adding piece by piece to the puzzle that slowly becomes one. When I said it was a cinematic masterpiece, I mean it: Seldom had a war movie such an emotional impact on me. But where are the boats now and why do I write this review in NO FRILLS Well, here´s something to learn …

Yachts and sailboats in World War 2

One aspect of “Operation Dynamo” had been the confiscation of privately owned small craft. Fishing boats, small ferries and of course motorboats and sailboats, in total an impressive fleet of up to 850 boats, lines up in the small ports of the English Southern coast to set out and lorry back and forth those soldiers. An impossible and ridiculous idea, as we first agree to one of the characters, but one amazing aspect of the Dunkirk-story, one story arc of Nolan´s film.

Spirfires and yachts: What a story!

As the harbor or Dunkirk was subject to constant German aerial bombardment and also too small to house more than one mid- or bigger sized ships, the British commander came up with the idea to get smaller boats to the rescue. Also, some ships and boats had been sunk on their way back and forth between the continent and England, so somebody had to pick up the poor guys in the water.

Desperation – visualized by fantastic Hoyte van Hoytema

Time always lays a big role in Nolan movies. It´s the same for “Dunkirk”. But no fear, it´s not as puzzling and confusing as in “Interstellar” nor as mind-blowing and complicated as in “Tenet”. The three lines of action are told in a way that each pit delivers the story plus some details for the other strands. Sometimes the movie jumps back in time to begin with completing the story of the other lines, a system the viewer will understand soon and easy. It´s a nice clarity within this non-linearity that is very refreshing for a Nolan-movie.

Christopher Nolan´s best film?

I would say: Yes! I love “Interstellar” and certainly “Tenet” is an unforgettable ride, like one of the best James Bond-movies, but “Dunkirk” had me in a way none of his movies – so far – could catch me. He treats this historic matter with great care, with much attention to detail. It´s not a senseless and unrealistic glorification, nor wild gore. His emphasis is on the people. Some are heroes, some are not. Some stand up and face the horrors, some just try to get away with their bare lives.

Great performances by known and unknown actors

The movie is so deeply emotional, so restless and thrilling. It´s a restless roller coaster ride, very close up to the people, no chance to have a rest, no matter how overwhelmingly powerful the fatigue. Other than “All quiet on the Western Front”, a movie which I was reminded of by the clarity and emotional power, “Dunkirk” lets you no pause, no moment to take a deep breath: Time is pressing on and merciless, cold and cruel as war is, drags you through the events.

What I liked most about the movie

The emotional effect of “Dunkirk” is one of the great things Nolan achieves with this movie. The other aspect I found absolutely ingenious was the choice of the characters and their stories: A simple soldier, a Spitfire pilot and the crew aboard the small vessel MOONSTONE, representative for the 850 private boats participating in the evacuation of one full army.

The “Little Ships of Dunkirk”

Three different angles onto the same story: Land, air and sea. Nolan intertwines the three and takes us onto a restless rush, pressed by the advancing menace. He sows the heroism in small and big, the horrors and sufferings, the random choices of death and the equally random luck of the surviving. Like beacons of hope, some characters stand up, facing the inevitable and trying to do what has to be done. In small and in big. It is so touching, so moving, indeed!

The Ying and the Yang

Why? Because even if the events on the beaches of Dunkerque and the Channel have taken place more than 80 years ago, we as pleasure craft skippers may have a special relation to it. “How would you decide, if war broke out?” – a question that I tackled to answer for myself after watching the movie. What would I do if war broke out and the Army asks me to take my part? Would I set sails and steam towards the smoldering horizon?

A film that will stick

What was it like in wartime, owning a yacht? Of course, pleasure sailing ceased to be a thing, but the skippers did not cease to be skippers. What would I have done, surrendered my beloved boat to the authorities? Had I taken the tiller myself to participate? It´s just a rhetorical question, I know, but in the face of modern-day wars all over the world, the stupidity of erupting aggression and violence, it´s a sobering experience to think about the extraordinary luck we have to being able to live in peace. To enjoy our boats. To freely travel where we want. And how damn precious that is!

My overall assessment for “Dunkirk” by Chris Nolan are 10 out of 10 points


Screenshots © Warner Brothers

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