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Christopher Nolan walks you through the most terrifying scene in Dunkirk

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Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is one of the year’s best films, a propulsive World War II film that’s been celebrated by both critics and, well, people who were actually there. There’s plenty about it to praise—its score, for example—but on first watch it’s the urgency and intimacy Nolan cultivates that gives the film its visceral, primal power. Above, see Nolan walk The New York Times through how he achieved that sense of immediacy via one of the film’s most distressing sequences.

In it, a Navy destroyer off the coast of Dunkirk serves as refuge for escaping soldiers, but is struck by a torpedo that quickly sends it sinking. As water rushes in, soldiers scramble for escape in pitch blackness. It was that latter aspect Nolan truly sought to capture, noting that to him the scene is “about darkness.”


“It’s about absolute fear,” he continues, “and the claustrophobia of being trapped with hundreds of other people in a dark space that’s rapidly filling up with water.”

If that sounds horrific just hearing him say it, try watching the scene. It’s queasy, disorienting, and deeply sad, the kind of death you have nightmares about. Capturing it on film wasn’t easy, either—while some of the scene was shot on an actual Navy destroyer, other moments were filmed on a forced perspective set in a tank that could be rolled over into the water. Nolan also notes that the actors all did their own stunts, so kudos to Harry Styles.


Dunkirk just got nominated for three Golden Globes, including Best Drama and Best Director. You’ll be seeing it at the Oscars, too.