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Dissecting 'Dunkirk's excellence in sound design

Kenneth Utama
Kenneth Utama

Music lover, interested in political science, history and pop culture

Jakarta | Thu, August 3, 2017 | 10:37 am
Dissecting 'Dunkirk's excellence in sound design

A still from ' Dunkirk'. (Warner Bros. Pictures/File)

What does it mean to make a film? What is its purpose?

Many would argue that the point of a movie is to create an immersive experience and transport the audience to the reality within the screen. Christopher Nolan’s new masterpiece Dunkirk masterfully teleports the audience into France in World War II.

While most filmmakers might focus on the visual aspects of the movie to create immersion in their films, Nolan chooses to use the medium of sound to truly bring out the emotions and intensity of being in a war zone.

Read also: ‘Dunkirk’ not a typical war film

As a person who has read their fair share of novels about war in my literature classes, war as a concept is unforgiving and ruthless. To best describe it, it is a machine that only produces death and destruction, the finality of death lurking in every corner.

Nolan attempts to recreate this effect as closely as possible.

While many people found that the sound was too loud compared to the soft tone of the dialogue being spoken by the characters, the sudden jumps of sound coming from bullets, explosions and planes are exactly what a war is like. A soldier does not know when he or she will die. The loud volume of the bullets and explosions, along with the quality of the sound puts the audience in a constant state of tension and surprise, just like the soldiers are in the movie.

An example of this would be the scene where the soldiers are trapped inside the boat and are being shot at from the outside. The low volume of the whispering soldiers is starkly contrasted by the sudden and loud bullets piercing through the hull of the ship. Each shot actually feels like it could end a life.

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Unlike most action movies where the bullets are merely machine gun sounds and flashes of light that the protagonist is meant to dodge, Dunkirk makes sure that every bullet is heard and counts. It creates suspense and makes the audience understand the situation that the soldiers are in.

The beauty of this movie lies in the fact that suspense is not the only effect created through the sounds, or lack thereof.

In most of the important points of character development, the emotions are not expressed through dialogue, rather they are expressed through gestures and the score. The best example of this would be the death of George (the dark-haired boy on the small boat) and the reaction of Peter toward being asked by the soldier “Is the boy alright?” Knowing that George had died Peter merely nods and looks at his father Mr. Dawson. This is in contrast to the previous anger that he had expressed to the soldier for hurting George. It shows the development of the character through action and barely any lines were spoken. The scene was more meaningful because no words were spoken. It shows how these different characters grow in a wartime situation, where there is no time to speak or process emotion.

The beauty of this movie lies in the fact that it does not provide any form of escapism. Rather the movie works to bring you into the worst parts of the reality in a wartime situation. Dunkirk does not promise glory or victory, it only promises survival at the end, which is what war is about.

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The score by Hans Zimmer only works to increase this concept. There are no lighthearted sounds, all of them are a constant crescendo of noise. It is aggressive, and comes at you like a storm, just like all the other sounds in the movie. There are rarely scenes without any background music, throughout a movie that regularly switches settings, the score is a constant throughout the movie and is what keeps the movie together.

An example of this would be what I consider the climax of the film, where they are constantly switching from the planes, to the burning ships and the small boats trying to save the soldiers. While the pacing might seem strange the score allows the scenes to flow together seamlessly.

A movie focusing on the horrors of war is nothing new. However, the focus on sound to express these concepts is a fresh take on the subject of war. The sounds that range from utter silence from the characters to loud gunshots, allow this movie to immerse the audience in an experience that is fresh for war movies. (kes)


Music lover, interested in political science, history and pop culture, video game player (mostly Dota 2). Kenneth is currently studying at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

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