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Soundtrack review: Dunkirk (Hans Zimmer – 2017)

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Soundtrack review: Dunkirk (Hans Zimmer – 2017)


When Christopher Nolan first chose Hans Zimmer to write the music for one of his films, the risky Batman reboot, he made one of the most important decisions in film music history. There have been a lot of legendary director / composer teams over the years, from Spielberg / Williams to Burton / Elfman but for me this is the best of them all. In the past decade the Hans Zimmer scores for Christopher Nolan scores have ended up more often then none as my score of the year… “The dark knight”…”Inception”…”Interstellar” are in all in my top 20 of all times. Nolan’s ideas, usually ground breaking or unbelievably intense needed a musical voice to match and now I can’t imagine one without the other and I don’t think Nolan imagines anybody else understanding what his movies need as well as Hans does. They have become like one and I find their relationship to be one of the most inspiring and admirable, creative wise.

As years went by the task of scoring a Chris Nolan movie became more difficult and exciting as the role of music increased in his films; I imagine both director and composer challenged one another to peaks of creativity and from writing the twisted and tormented Joker character they got to musically expressing the mind bending ideas in “Inception” and, most recently, space itself in “Interstellar”. Usually, this is the limit, this is the implicit answer to the rhetorical question “where else could they go?”. Well in their case, there was one more thing they could do: make an unforgettable story from a war movie which has little to no dialogue and where all the tension and emotion is experienced mainly through the visual details Nolan crafted and the music Hans created; they reached the perfect balance where director and composer have equally important parts.

My favourite score of all times comes from a World War II movie and is written by Hans Zimmer for another visionary and enigmatic director, Terrence Mallick. I find similarities between “The thin red line” and “Dunkirk” because they are both war movies where the emotions, thoughts and inner monologues of the main characters take centre stage to the fights. There, Hans’ music was played for hours as the actors prepared for their parts while here I imagine the musical ideas met the filmmaking ones long before the first frame was short. Chris Nolan literally send his ingenious ingredients, like a clock ticking and a pocket watch, to his favourite alchemist Hans to turn into music by synthesising them.

“Dunkirk” tells the story of one of the most famous episodes in WWII from British perspective, the Dunkirk evacuation. From what I read this is a story that British people grow up with and one of their proudest moments as a nation. Allied soldiers from Britain, Belgium, Canada and France are surrounded by the German Army on the beaches of Dunkirk and evacuated in Operation Dynamo between 26 May and 4 June 1940, during the early stages of the Second World War. Hans Zimmer wrote the score with a little help from his usual friends Lorne Balfe and Ben Wallfisch.

Even before hearing the score I knew it would be an unusual one because when he writes for Nolan and only when he writes for Nolan I think Hans submits his creation completely to the movie; he forgets about themes, or music and just writes whatever serves the movie. This might render this score difficult to listen to for people expecting themes and melodies. The movie is all about tension and actually experiencing the war as if the viewer was in the middle of it, living it, and the music blends with the harsh, metallic and abrasive sound effects to make the experience whole.

The opening cue “The mole”, without being loud, raises my pulse with a very Zimmer like atmospheric buildup that reminds me a bit of Interstellar; I listen to this cue and I am literally afraid of what might come because it does a great job of setting up danger and the lack of options that sit in the middle of this story. “We need our army back” expands that tension motif and I am enjoying this score because it’s darkly ambient and has that constant synthesised ticking in the background that matches the beating of my heart. The beginning of the score quietly exposes the way each man perceived this situation when it appeared in his own intimate way instead of the larger, generic notion of war. There’s quite a bit of music derived from the magnificent creation that was “Interstellar” in “Dunkirk”, especially from the tense moments of the space flight. Strip “Interstellar” of melodic emotion and you find “Dunkirk” underneath.

For me “Dunkirk” is immersive and addictive; it’s a bit of a quicksand effect as the music almost forces me to enjoy its cold, metallic and unforgiving tones. It’s a continuous expansion of the Zimmer sound of late; I admit I sometimes wish he’d get back every now and then to his retro synth roots or the emotional 00s but this sound, his Nolan aggressive electronic almost demonic in how constantly dark it is to the point where it doesn’t seem human anymore, this sound that’s been developed for 10 years has almost reached perfection. “Supermarine” is representative for the current Zimmer period. As I am penetrated by it and as I wish there was no maximum setting to the volume of my player I remember two things: first, the live performance of “The dark knight suite” which is so impossibly dark, rhythmic and aggressive that I felt the performers, all of them, had turned into demons or zombies that have as only purpose in life to perform that suite, and the time when I saw Massive Attack live and I had the same feeling of something beyond human in the music; they were playing “Safe from harm” and when I thought the music had reached the maximum point of dark aggresivity they went even further.

The first shadow of warmth appears in “The tide”; it’s a heartbreaking effect as I imagine helplessness and prayers. It’s something rare in this otherwise cold score which you will enjoy if you enjoyed the ticking parts of “Interstellar”. There’s no break in the ticking or the tension in this album and I imagine the movie is quite an affecting experience as well. Hans and his team manage to create an atmosphere which even if I am sitting in my living room, safe, makes me want to hide and makes me wish for the safety of my home. The music transcends what I perceive around me and tricks my mind into believing I am in an almost hopeless situation, always running, always hiding, always desperately looking for a way out. I might need defibrillation after this score ends.

“Home” brings a reward for the valiant listeners who stuck with the score this far as an emotional motif appears at the end of another punishing cue as the sun breaking the clouds after days of storm. I love this cue, I love how it’s constructed, I love its heartless and frantic rhythm and I love this conclusion. It’s probably the only cue worth mentioning separately as the rest of the score fades into one single and long cue.

For the “End credits”, Hans, Lorne and Ben took a theme as famous for the British as the Dunkirk story itself, “Nimrod” by Sir Edward Elgar and deconstructed it and turned it into a theme of their own. It just touched me how Christopher Nolan talked about this theme and the way he put it into words like only the best writers can when he said that he is incapable of listening to that theme without feeling the surprising weight of his father’s coffin on his shoulder; the Elgar theme means so much to him and he allowed Hans the freedom to play with it. This is trust, this is full trust between director and composer. I also like what they did with it as the final two cues of the score are just gorgeous ambient pieces that lay this album to its well deserved rest.

“Dunkirk” is rhythm and discipline, military discipline and a total lack of emotion; the emotion is left to the characters and to the real life story as the music itself stays blocked between very clearly determined boundaries. It’s a real feat achieved by Hans and his team to keep the music there for en entire hour without giving it room to breathe; the constant ticking and pounding, the buildups and the tension will undoubtedly get to every single listener and I am sure “Dunkirk” will be one of the most divisive scores Hans has ever written; listeners will either become addicted to the feeling of having their hearts in their throats or will get frustrated; luckily I am in the first category and I invite you to experience this score for yourselves because it is something quite unique. But if you enjoy the Zimmer sound of late, you will probably appreciate the level at which Hans manages to take it here.

Cue rating: 96 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 49 / 60

Album excellence: 83%

The Mole
Shivering Soldier
Regimental Brothers
The Oil
Variation 15 (Dunkirk) (Benjamin Wallfisch & Sir Edward Elgar)
End Titles (Dunkirk) (Benjamin Wallfisch, Sir Edward Elgar, Lorne Balfe & Hans Zimmer)





Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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  1. Gabzilla 3rd August 2017

    Totally annoying screech. Took all the visual effects to keep me from walking out. Nothing like watching a thriller set to sawmill that drowns out not only dialog but is louder than explosions when a ship is bombed or torpedoed. Zimmer sustains a high note for at least 25 minutes while hundreds drown. It’s a two-hour sonic train wreck. Pass the morphine.

  2. Graham Hughes 7th August 2017

    Appalling lack of imagination. Taking the climax of Elgar’s Nimrod, slowing it down and putting it on a loop. Is this really the best a top composer can do? It really started to annoy me – like an annoying ear-worm. Wallowing in a naff cliche! I suspect Zimmer was so limited in his freedom by a director (who thought he knew better) that that’s all he could do.

  3. Clayman 23rd August 2017

    “…when he writes for Nolan I think Hans submits his creation completely to the movie; he forgets about themes, or music and just writes whatever serves the movie. This might render this score difficult to listen to for people expecting themes and melodies.”

    ^^^ This right here is why I think the score is abysmal as a standalone listening experience. There is _absolutely nothing_ in there that I could connect to, even at the most basic level. At times it feels like listening to a recording of a running machine.

    I have seen the movie in IMAX so I realize how well it works within the realm of the images, but on its own, it’s just awful. I know Nolan wanted this and Zimmer provided, so it does feel wrong to blame Hans, but I cannot help it. I dislike this score with a passion.

  4. johnH 31st August 2017

    A brilliant score that forms as important a part of the film as the images. The key moment is the sequence around ‘Home’ and the arrival of the boats. Everybody knows it is coming so it has to pack a punch, to contrast dread against the hope. There wasn’t a dry eye in the cinema when Nimrod plays as the boats appear.

  5. Adrian 9th March 2018

    I really can’t understand these critical comments.. we are not rating a simple tracklist of different themes that either is cool to listen to or not! This is a soundtrack review! Music written to support a story, about a terrifying war that shock the world and its generations after. Its MEANT to hurt when you listen to this. It is meant to create an umbalanced, ambivalent and repulsing feeling, that we simply want to get away from. Do you really think its normal that every good soundtracks in the world is great because u can sit and listen to the whole tracklist while doing homework or painting a flower or something? Soundtracks are great because it relates to something, it describes a scene, and gives life to beautyfull moments of art. Dunkirk was the best, simply by combining these great minds together.


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