Dunkirk: It’s About Time

By Dr. Alvin Burstein

The events that unfolded at Dunkirk May 6 to June 4, 1940 were pivotal in World War II, and, perhaps, for modern times. The Nazi war machine had swept through most of Europe, trapping nearly a half million French, British and Belgian troops in a pocket on the French coast. Had the beleaguered defenders been killed or captured, an Allied defeat could well have become inevitable.

But that didn’t happen. A surprising pause in the German advance permitted the evacuation of over 300,000 troops, and the trajectory of the war changed decisively.

The British regrouped. Hitler made the catastrophic error of invading Russia. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war. And five years later, the Axis powers
unconditionally surrendered to the Allies.

Churchill called Dunkirk “the miracle of deliverance.”

The movie, Dunkirk, does a stirring job of immersing its audience in this historic moment.

The narrative style in which it does so is remarkable in several ways. Although a struggle is pictured, we almost never see the antagonist. The German pilots are invisible; the only German
soldiers that appear are a few shadowy figures toward the film’s end.

Incongruous elements are given screen time—a British soldier fleeing from capture or death, stops to move his bowels.

Although we admire the determination of the captain of one of the small boats involved in the evacuation effort as well as the willingness of one of the Spitfire fighter pilots to forgo his opportunity to return to his airbase, neither seems much transformed by their experience.

I think Dunkirk is about more than war.

The movie begins with a flat announcement that it takes place in three arenas and in three time spans: on the mole, the massive pier where the evacuees huddle for a week, on the sea, the day of rescue, and in the air, where we focus on Spitfire pilots engaging in an hour’s dog fight.

These three timelines are continually intermixed.

And then there is the unspoken and unexplained—even by military historians—circumstance of yet another timeline: the pause in the German attack.

And then we watch, repeatedly, the Spitfire pilot recalculate the flight time he has remaining.

And most remarkable of all, is the moment in the film when the Spitfire, out of fuel, in a strikingly vivid metaphor, begins its seemingly, endless, timeless, silent glide to earth.

Dunkirk is about war, its horror, maybe about war’s capacity to test and challenge. But it also keeps calling our attention to time. It wants us to think about time and the human
experience of time. In Time and Narrative, Paul Ricoeur reminds us that the human experience of time critically involves our knowing we are mortal, that we all, like the
Spitfire pilot, run out of time.

Dunkirk calls time to our attention to remind us of our mortality.

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