Note: This piece is an addendum of sorts to my previous piece on Star Wars and the mathematics of empathy. I'd recommend starting there.
Christopher Nolan's 2017 masterpiece, Dunkirk, undertakes a radical experiment in assumed empathy. It is a film allergic to characterization (and other storytelling basics), yet this particular affliction is key to its dramatic success.
Nolan couldn't be less interested in his soldiers' backstories. So acute is his apathy that he doesn't bother with even naming his men. He does privilege his protagonist with a name, but it is a name never spoken within the film itself, and in any case is interchangeable with that of John Doe: "Tommy." Nolan systematically strips his characters of character, draining them of anything that risks particularizing them: names, backstories, even personalities. He assumes the role of military instructor, keen to drill his individual men into a barely distinguishable collective.
Yet to say that Nolan isn't interested in character is inaccurate. Dunkirk is enthralled by, even obsessed, with character. It simply expresses this obsession in a manner alien to those whose cinematic literacy has been conditioned by the narrative and aesthetic conventions of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, and commercial storytelling in general. The central genius of Nolan's film lies in the way it avoids the trap of assumed empathy even without the crutch of explained character.
Dunkirk achieves this by stubbornly denying us context--not just for its characters, but for its conflict. Nolan's war-centric gaze is brutal in its discipline. One never gets a sense of the world beyond Dunkirk. The battle's historical backstory is never elaborated, nor is the enemy seen or identified. No generals strategize over maps, no civilians fret over the fates of their beloved. No politics are debated, no ideologies trumpeted. Dunkirk is a historical film, yet the Dunkirk of the film exists outside of history. The film is about time--literally embedded in Hans Zimmer's musical tracks is the ticking of the clock--yet it exists somewhere beyond it. It is in the present, always. Dunkirk is as lost as the frightened soldiers who dot its gray shores, an island adrift in the oceans of the cosmos, alone. Nothing exists beyond Dunkirk for these soldiers, so nothing exists for us.
This denial of context is a denial of distraction. It infuses the film with an existential urgency, a visceral immediacy. Expectations of plot, of characterization, are shot down as explosively as the German planes.
From this wreckage of plots and planes emerges the film's electrifying clarity, the single impulse that consumes its characters and its audience: survival. The skies scream fire and the waters vomit tar, and the soldiers caught in between have no choice but to survive. We are never informed why they want to survive, nor are we told why we should care. In lesser films, this would be a critical storytelling flaw. Here, it is the key to the film's devastating emotional impact.
We connect to the characters not because we know them, but because we know their circumstances. We don't literally know their circumstances, of course, because few of the film's viewers would have fought in World War II, or any war, for that matter. Nolan draws upon the technical powers of cinema, rather than the affective powers of narrative, to bridge the gap between foreignness and familiarity, between intimacy and indifference.
As X memorably put it in the New Yorker, Dunkirk is Nolan's first V.R. film. It is a film deliberately designed to have a limited shelf-life, as it is at its most efficacious when viewed in theaters, and in particular in IMAX. Most films survive the demotion from IMAX projection to 7.5-inch phone screen with their essential organs intact. Dunkirk, however, is a fundamentally lesser film if viewed in any format but the biggest and the loudest. Only in IMAX can a viewer feel his ears ring as bombs detonate inches away, his head , his teeth chatter, his body reverberate. Only here can the viewer almost convince himself that he tastes salt in the air, that he smells smoke in the distance, that he hears motors pass overhead, that he feels the cold sand enveloping his bottom. Only when a viewer exposes himself to this sensory assault will he instinctively connect, on the most primal of levels, with the anonymous soldiers on screen. Nolan has stripped his characters of everything else--of all distractions--so that this primal level is the only way to connect with them. It is a profound connection, one that truly speaks to a common humanity. The men on your screen are your brothers, even if you know nothing of them. "Danger is the anvil on which trust is forged." Here, it is the anvil on which sympathy, and even empathy, is forged.
Dunkirk, then, for all that it is stripped of characterization, never assumes the viewer's empathy. It earns it, but simply opts to do so through technical dominance rather than narrative coaxing. Even in a film, in a story, as experimental as Nolan's, empathy remains a prize to be labored for.