Dunkirk ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

You never see the Germans.

Nearly every 70mm frame of Christopher Nolan’s monumental new film is lodged in the heart of the heart of World War II — ticking down the seconds as the Nazis tighten the noose around 400,000 Allied troops who are stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk — but you never see the Germans. Their submarines lurk invisibly beneath the waters offshore, their planes swoop in the distance overhead, and their foot soldiers remain off-camera as they amass on the other side of the dunes and wait for the order to attack.

On the rare occasions when the Axis fighters make themselves known (as they do in the haunted and startling prologue), their bullets whistle towards us like the wind, materializing from nowhere and visible only for the destruction they leave behind. Out of sight, however, is most definitely not out of mind. On the contrary, Nolan makes it impossible to think about anything else. His unshakeable account of Britain’s darkest hour — and the miraculous dawn that followed — dissolves Hitler’s army into a primarily existential threat. The opening text refers to them as just “the enemy.” They are as vague and violent as the dream projections in “Inception,” less of a literal force than a deadly abstraction that lives under our skin, feeds on our fears, and erodes our shared purpose.

In other words, they are the perfect antagonists for a PG-13 war epic, their absence allowing this story of panic and isolation to celebrate Britain’s past while also condemning its Brexit-era present. They are the galvanizing force behind a cinematic oxymoron, a virtually bloodless but profoundly unnerving assault on the senses. Cleaving closer to Sartre than Spielberg, “Dunkirk” is a stunning work of raw spectacle that searches for order in the midst of chaos. It’s the most contradictory film that Christopher Nolan has ever made, and — not incidentally — also the best.

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