Dunkirk by Hans Zimmer

The collaboration between composer Hans Zimmer and director Christopher Nolan has turned out to be one of the most successful ones of recent Hollywood history and it all started back in 2005 with the amazing Batman Begins. In my book, Christopher Nolan is one of the world’s best directors and his films usually have a very high standard, since they are absolutely well-crafted.

He seems to surround himself with many absolutely talented and brilliant people and I guess it was only a matter of time before Nolan and one of the best film composers of all time, Hans Zimmer, would team up. Their first collaboration, the aforementioned Batman Begins, was historical.

This is not only due to the fact that director mastermind Nolan chose to tackle one of the most popular comics in history, but the project would also see a collaboration of two of the most brilliant composers on earth – Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. They wrote a fantastic score. Hence, the return of the dynamic scoring duo was inevitable and The Dark Knight turned out to be a huge success as well. Unfortunately, James Newton Howard would not return for The Dark Knight Rises.

Christopher Nolan seems to be a director that likes his composers to work freely. On Inception, for instance, the score was not written directly to picture. A method which turned out just fine and I still consider this film to be Nolan’s crowning achievement to date. The score itself was absolutely stunning inside the film and I would like to see an official expanded album of this score. Quite a few really exciting cues were not included on the final album. Fortunately, two tracks were released digitally a little later on.

The team of Zimmer and Nolan has been on a roll so far and after the successful Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception, Mr. Nolan would go on to shoot another masterpiece – Interstellar. Luckily, fans got a beautiful and complete recording of this score. This film turned out to be another highlight in Nolan’s filmography and Zimmer got his 9th Oscar nomination.

Shortly after Interstellar, the next project of Mr. Nolan had been announced – a World War II film about one of the defining moments in history. Expectations of fans and critics alike were once again enormously high. The film got rave reviews and I could not wait to get to the theater to see whether the film was really as good as everyone said. Yet, before I saw the final film, I paid attention to Hans Zimmer’s score. Before the full album had been released, WaterTower put out one of the score cues in advance. The piece is called “Supermarine” and right off the bat, reactions were extremely mixed. Some called it a brilliant track of rhythm and sound design and others, who were not that impressed, voiced that the track was simply repetitive and boring. Given the story of the film itself, I did not really expect a thematic or hugely melodic score. Hans Zimmer reportedly got instructions not to write much thematic or emotional material. His task apparently was to underscore the horror of war, the isolation of the soldiers and the constant fear of the people involved in one of the biggest rescue missions in history. What does that tell you?

It might be a hint that you would be dealing with a score that could work brilliantly inside the picture, yet once the music is experienced out of context, it might not stand alone. When I had already listened to the album twice, I was told by quite a few people, that I needed to see the film, before I could judge the music. Well, this is where it becomes tricky. Film music is beyond a shadow of a doubt the musical genre which is the most difficult one the analyze. Why? The answer is simple – it is called film music. It is designed for a motion picture. It needs to work with the images, it needs to support the picture. The music is psychologically linked to every frame that you see.

In terms of Dunkirk, the music basically accompanies the entire film. There is music, or sound design in every frame. Truth be told, the film can be a bit exhausting to watch. This is not only due to Mr. Nolan’s terrific directing, Lee Smith’s great editing, or Hoyte Van Hoytema’s brilliant cinematography. The film also works so well, because of Hans Zimmer’s menacing score. Especially the first 15 to 30 minutes are extremely captivating and one of the most fascinating and effective pieces of music, a threatening string piece, was unfortunately omitted from the album. For the most part of the film, I felt uncomfortable and it was a pulse-pounding experience. Hans Zimmer’s score is largely unpleasant to listen to. Nevertheless, you can be assured it is absolutely effective. Do you see what I am getting at? It is not the composer’s job to write a hit record. It is not the composer’s job to write a score which you can play over and over again. It is the composer’s job the write the right music for the film.

Furthermore, people tend to forget, that a film is not a one-man-show. It is a collaborative effort that involves many, many people and you get lots of input. A composer works for the producer and the director. It is not the other way around. Hence, they have to deliver something which is in accordance with the instructions they get. One of the things I have also noticed so far, is that Hans Zimmer either seems to get praise for his Dunkirk score or he gets criticized rather heavily. Some even go so far to call it an anti-score.

Was Jerry Goldsmith’s The Omen a pleasant listening experience? I don’t think so. Yet, it is one of the most effective and brilliant scores of all time. What about Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho? It is one of the most iconic scores ever. The music he wrote for the shower-murder-scene is one of the most easily recognizable pieces of music in the entire film history. It is extremely effective, yet hard to listen to. Nobody calls that an anti-score, at least not as far as I know.

Hans Zimmer seems to be a composer who is often “misunderstood”. Quite frankly, much of the criticism is complete rubbish. There was a time when people only associated his name with big actions films. Nothing could be farther from the truth. There was a time when people said that Hans only writes electronic scores. This statement was and still is complete nonsense. Some people said he does the same stuff over and over again. To me, this is absolutely wrong. Hans Zimmer does not want to deliver the same music in the same style over and over again. He has proved that so many times over the years. Nobody is forced to like an artist, but I don’t think it is too much to ask to get the facts right. Hans Zimmer is a true professional. You simply need to admire his willingness to experiment, to find new sounds and to also challenge the orchestra and let them try out different things. He is a composer that did not make it to the top by accident. He is one of the best the industry has ever seen.

Let‘s get back to the album. Earlier on, I mentioned that there were basically 100 minutes of music. A total of 57 minutes made it to the album. Hans Zimmer and some of his well-known collaborators such as Benjamin Wallfisch, Lorne Balfe, Satnam Romgotra & Steve Mazzarro, not only wrote and arranged new music for the picture. A piece called “Nimrod” by British composer Sir Edward Elgar was skillfully incorporated into the score. The inclusion of the “Nimrod” variation actually provides the most emotional musical moments of the score. The most effective and beautiful arrangements of this piece are included in the tracks “Variation 15” (Dunkirk) and the “End Titles”. I need to point out that “Variation 15” was written by the very talented Benjamin Wallfisch and produced by Hans Zimmer. For the “End Credits” the team of Hans Zimmer, Lorne Balfe and Benjamin Wallfisch, arranged a beautiful and very effective piece which includes some of the principal motives of the entire score.

The piece “Supermarine”, which was released in advance, is the longest track of the album. This cue, however, is not presented in the film in this form. The very effective and constant ticking was basically spread out through the entire film and reappears in more or less threatening variations. The siren-like motif which reaches a culmination at the end of the cue, certainly stands as one of the most intense moments of the album. When I listened to the piece again, after having watched the film, I got a more complete picture of the musical approach.

Many times during the showing, I kind of felt overwhelmed by the impact of the final result with all its elements. I also need to point out that this film has been rated PG-13. It is not the kind of war film that shows cruel images. This film focuses on the emotional component and shows the constant struggle for survival. At times, the film becomes really challenging. The same can be said for the musical score as well. When you combine images of this kind with the score as it has been written, you certainly are in for a tough experience. Yet, not all of the material is unpleasant. “Variation 15” and the “End Credits” are my favorite cues on the album. Other pieces like “The Mole” and “We Need Our Army Back” & “Home” definitely make you feel as if something was lurking in the dark. It feels like as if you were drowning and you try to make it to the surface and you just never quite make it back to the top.

The film has intense moments aplenty. “The Oil” underscores some of the most drastic scenes in the picture. Needles to say, this is exactly what the score brings across.

Like I said before, the album as a whole is not what I had hoped for. It is not the album of Mr. Zimmer that I will fall in love with and apart from a few cues, I don’t think I will revisit the album that often. As far as I am concerned, a big part of the score does not work when it stands alone. Yet, you simply have to acknowledge the impact of the score inside the picture. Christopher Nolan has directed another very good film. He managed to take us right to the battle and gave us some of the most fascinating theatrical moments of the year so far and this is, in no small part, due to the effort and contribution of Mr. Hans Zimmer.