Dunkirk: Lessons in visual storytelling from the silent film rendition of Christopher Nolan's film

Gautam Chintamani

Jan,28 2018 13:22:30 IST

The phrase, ‘Show, Don’t Tell,’ has been littered across most filmmaking guides and screenwriting manuals and yet, the adage somewhere continues to confound most filmmakers. Considering that film is a visual medium, most pundits would have you believe that cinema needs to thrive on visuals and therefore each image should be powerful enough and not rely on dialogues to convey the emotions. Unfortunately, today, most films often confuse the setting in terms of the location to be the most vital element in ‘showing’ the story and therefore a good production design pips the classic visual storytelling.

A still from Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk

A still from Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk

A recent 8-minute silent edit of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk reimagines the film as a silent era movie and despite the 2-hour long film having minimal dialogues, the shorter version still manages to hold its own. Although the experiment includes onscreen intertitles, which were also used in the silent era to present key dialogue and at times comment on the action for the cinema audience, the sheer power of the images in the 8-minute version does not let anything get lost in translation. Of late, such experiments where iconic films are reimagined without any dialogue have become quite common. A few years ago Steven Soderbergh also made a silent edit of Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark to reiterate how Spielberg’s storytelling has always been visual than aural. These have become a great tool for film fans and students to go back to the basic “Show, Don’t Tell” tenant, which was being pushed back thanks to a hyper-kinetic MTV like shot-taking or the highly stylized style of auteurs such as John Woo or Quentin Tarantino.

One can cite the examples of all-time greats such as Charlie Chaplin, DW Griffith, Satyajit Ray, and Alfred Hitchcock to understand visual storytelling. When Chaplin was making City Lights (1931) he wanted to show a blind girl (Virginia Cherrill) mistaking a tramp (Chaplin) for a millionaire in a believable manner. Chaplin’s tramp crosses a street using the backseats of cars that were parked or stopped in traffic and when he gets out of one such car the blind flower girl mistakes him for a rich man. In his preparation for Dunkirk, Nolan repeatedly saw films from the silent era such as Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1924), DW Griffith's Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916) and FW Murnau's Sunrise (1927) to understand the use of visuals to tell the story. In fact, at one stage he wanted to start shooting without a script because he felt his extensive research might make Dunkirk work without a script and even said, ‘I don't want a script, I just want to show it, it's almost like I want to just stage it. And film it.”

In an Indian context, perhaps Satyajit Ray would be a pioneer in using visual elements to narrate any story. The mise en scène of his films such as Pather Panchali (1955), Kanchenjungha (1962) and Shatranj Ke Khirai (1977) transforms the visual to not just a cinematic pleasure but also text. Premchand’s short story that was adapted by Ray took passing references to the decaying feudal class, life and times in Awadh of the 19th century and translated them into an unforgettable and visually alluring treatise on the same subject. The manner in which Vijay Anand framed his visuals also conveyed much more than what was being said. In the last few years, there has been an increase in the number of Hindi films that have changed the ways films are told from a visual perspective. But these Bollywood filmmakers still have a lot to learn when it comes to using images and playing with perspective.

Even animation films such as Wall-E (2008), where the first 40-minutes or so of the film practically has no dialogue, have revolutionised visual storytelling. Director Andrew Stanton asked Pixar artists how silent comedians such as Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and of course Charlie Chaplin could tell some of the best stories without sophisticated special effects, flashy cameras, or sound? As the film was being developed, they attempted to recreate the magic of the silent era images and many have called it "inventive" and "as brilliant as the classics". Perhaps, the manner in which realism is making a return behind the scenes in the universe that operates Hindi films (read budgets and themes) maybe experiments in true visual storytelling, too, are a matter of time.

Published Date: Jan 28, 2018 13:22 PM | Updated Date: Jan 28, 2018 13:22 PM