Many thanks to Natalie of writerlovesmovies for writing this awesome essay, analysing Hans Zimmer’s incredibly tense composition for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. The score in its entirety follows this piece. Despite being disconnected from the film, it is still amazing to listen and lose yourself in the atmosphere.
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a true work of cinema whose storytelling is concentrated visually and musically. Watching it in 70mm IMAX is amongst my most treasured cinema experiences. And, whilst some of the film’s immersive power is lost in its translation to the letter-boxed aspect-ratio of the small screen, it remains an intense and emotionally compelling work of art. The score, from musical heavyweight Hans Zimmer, is a huge part of the film’s atmosphere and suspense.
Speaking to the New York Times, Nolan said that the ‘entire film was really about rhythm’; the musical cues he offered to Zimmer were not about emotion but ‘pacing’. By excising emotion from the musical atmosphere – by being objective – Nolan and Zimmer immerse us in the experience of Dunkirk. It’s the closest we will come to being on the beaches, but the effect is not an exploitative one. While thrilling and raw, the film’s lasting impression is of the courage and bravery of soldiers, sailors, pilots and civilians.
Simply put: Zimmer’s score lays the foundations for an acutely suspenseful and emotional experience.
Dunkirk’s rising tension was inspired and made possible by the Shepard Tone; a musical trick that allows us to perceive notes as infinitely increasing in pitch. Vox describe it in this video here. Nolan had already employed the trick in The Prestige and The Dark Night trilogy and sought to build Dunkirk on similar ‘mathematical principals’. It’s the Shepard Tone that makes tracks ‘Supermarine’ and ‘Oil’ so extraordinary; escalating the tension of air combat and torpedo attacks to near unbearable levels. That Nolan is able to immerse us so deeply inside the experience of war is arguably his greatest cinematic achievement to date. The fear and desperation of his characters is so compelling because we feel it in our physical reaction to the constant tension of Zimmer’s score.
In the landscape of war, sound is terror. The sounds of gunfire and bombing, the engines of enemy aircraft and sinking ships, are the sounds of panic, danger and death. That Zimmer absorbs these into the musical score further amplifies the mounting tension creating an atmosphere of near constant peril. The bass emulates the sound of bombs impacting with thick sand; the high notes mirror the wailing of sirens, whirring enemy aircraft and the squeal of bombs discharged. The track ‘Regimental Brothers’ – that accompanies the soldier’s discovery of a beached ship – is reminiscent of a brass band tuning up, its beats those of marching steps.
Out of context the score is emphatic and insistent, but combined with the film it becomes much more subtle. Dunkirk pulsates and throbs between overwhelming noise and moments of near silence, leaving space for the emotions of the characters and the magnitude of the events to unfold. The score is woven into the film’s action with great care, making way for the unnatural sounds of screaming men and bodies splashing into the water.
By fusing the score with ‘real’ sounds, Zimmer creates a number of motifs that he is able to draw on in between his musical set-pieces. Told in three different time periods (each with its own perspective) that fuse in the final act, Zimmer brings this idea right inside his score with the sound of a ticking clock. Not only does the sound draw parallels between the same event in different perspectives or time sequences, but it suggests the very pressure of time itself. The enemy is closing in on the beaches but the soldiers must wait for the tide.
Sound is terror, but it is also hope. ‘Rolls Royce Merlin engines,’ says a civilian sailing out into war, ‘the sweetest sound you could hear out here’. The low rumble of the Spitfire engine is loaded with optimism; a sentiment that is carried over into track ‘Home’ which incorporates Edward Elgar’s famous composition ‘Nimrod’. Zimmer describes it as ‘an emotional anthem to a nation’, its tone being not one of heroism but ‘nobility’. Nimrod accompanies the successful arrival of the civilian boats and the spectacular Spitfire.
‘Anyone who knows anything about Elgar, or who loves his music, knows that much of it is imprinted with a very particular sense of place, of friendship, of childhood and of loss,’ says Kettle. There could hardly be a more perfect piece of music for Nolan’s Dunkirk: a film so dedicated to the very personal role and sacrifice of the ordinary man that Churchill’s most famous speech is uttered, not by the great orator himself, but by a soldier who survives.
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