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'Dunkirk' is an incomplete film

Richard Cohen on

This summer's big movie is "Dunkirk." Since its July 21 opening, it has taken in over $100 million in North America and been hailed by ecstatic critics everywhere. I have seen the film twice, admiring it even more the second time. It is a stupendous achievement, although more than a little odd. It's a war film for the Trump era. It is deaf to history.

Dunkirk is the French port on the English Channel where both British and French troops were trapped by the Germans in May 1940. The allies had their backs to the Channel, always an obstreperous body of water. Across the Channel lay England, which Hitler was intent on conquering. Winston Churchill, the new prime minister, was fully aware of the stakes. There would be no chivalrous surrender ceremony. Every member of his Cabinet, he wrote, "was ready to be killed quite soon." This was a war of extermination.

Aside from an opening scroll, none of that is mentioned in "Dunkirk." More startling, neither are the Germans. Throughout they are called "the enemy." Dolts seeing this movie could conclude the British and the French were fighting the Irish or Latvians. They would not know how dire the stakes were for Britain or, as Franklin D. Roosevelt understood, for the rest of the world. An evilly rapacious regime was on the march. Hitler was intent on murder without end.

The movie's omissions are not inadvertent. Director Christopher Nolan said he didn't want to make "something that wasn't relevant to today's audiences." He not only didn't want to show generals and admirals pushing toy armies around a large table, but he didn't want to get "bogged down in the politics of the situation," either. But "the politics of the situation" has to include Auschwitz and Coventry and, later, the 1944 massacre of 84 American POWs at Malmedy in Belgium. The "enemy" did that.

In her Wall Street Journal essay on "Dunkirk," Dorothy Rabinowitz chastised Nolan for minimizing Churchill's role in turning the debacle of Dunkirk into a rousing call to arms. The British and the French were trounced, but an armada of English pleasure boats and fishing vessels crossed the Channel and plucked around 340,000 men off the beach. Many lives were saved; maybe England itself.

But to my mind, Nolan's most egregious error was to white-out the Germans. I am not a German bitter-ender. I am, though, a German never-forgetter. In my several visits to Germany I have written in admiration of that country's strenuous efforts to face its past and make amends. In that regard, it has done better than France, whose complicity in the roundup and murder of its Jews was only tardily acknowledged. America, too, has been reluctant to come to terms with the horrors of slavery.

Germany's crimes were recent and of such a scale and depravity that, unless constantly faced, they will come to seem fictitious. Germany is special because in the pre-Nazi era it was -- as it has again become -- a center of European culture, not just the inevitable cliches about Beethoven and Brahms, but of avant-garde cinema, gay night life, vibrant journalism, great theater and Daimlers swooshing down Berlin's Unter den Linden. In a blink of an eye, all but the cars were gone. Germany went mad.

Nolan had an obligation to suggest this context -- and film reviewers had an obligation to note his reluctance. But not a single reviewer I've read faulted Nolan for removing Dunkirk from its context, or his insistence that ignorance is a cinematic virtue and that politics -- which in this case was about who shall live and who shall die -- would only muddy things up. This is especially the case in the age of Trump when it is necessary to appreciate that the ugliness he has exploited could escape its confines and metastasize. Contrary to Nolan's insistence, the politics of Dunkirk remains not only relevant, but urgent. Ignore it, and it will take you by the throat.

No British soldier called the men shooting at him "the enemy." I checked with Michael Korda, author of a forthcoming book on Dunkirk ("Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat Into Victory"). The British called the Germans "Jerries." They were real, upfront killers and included units of the SS who, at Dunkirk, murdered at least 80 British prisoners. These Germans fought in the cause of a huge evil and, because they lost, I write today. "The enemy"? It was then Germany. It is now ignorance.

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Richard Cohen's email address is cohenr@washpost.com.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

 

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