World War II

The Dunkirk evacuation on film before Christopher Nolan landed there

The historic British operation finally gets the big-budget Hollywood treatment.

Hollywood has explored the American experience of World War II numerous times. Key events involving the US armed forces have been immortalised on celluloid with much fervour. However, 77 years ago, it was an extraordinary British operation described as a “miracle” that decided the course of events during the war.

If Operation Dynamo had failed, Germany would have beaten the British and the US would have probably never joined the war. This iconic event has never been given the big-budget Hollywood treatment until Christopher Nolan decided to enshrine its memory. Nolan’s Dunkirk, starring Tom Hardy, Mary Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Harry Styles and Kenneth Branagh, will be released on July 21.

In May 1940, the German troops advanced into Belgium after conquering Poland and the Netherlands. The British and French troops, cornered from from all sides, huddled at the beaches of Dunkirk in France. Behind them was the German forces with their Panzer tanks; overhead were their air force. What saved 3,38,000 men from slaughter was the remarkable collaboration of soldiers and civilians in a concerted effort to bring their boys back home.

An animated history of Dunkirk.

The two major cinematic depictions of the Dunkirk evacuation have been British productions: a 1958 film and a 2004 BBC docudrama, both named after the operation.

Common between, and, perhaps, ailing both the productions is the time devoted to the behind-the-scene politics and manoeuvring that led to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill initiating Operation Dynamo. In the 1958 film, directed by Leslie Norman, the narrative is two-fold. On the one hand, journalist Foreman (Bernard Lee) and his friend, businessman Holden (Richard Attenborough), join forces along with other locals to take their boats and vessels from England to Dunkirk to rescue the soldiers.

Back in France, a company of soldiers led by Corporal Binns (John Mills) fight and escape German forces to finally reach Dunkirk and wait for divine intervention. Clocking in at 134 minutes, Norman’s Dunkirk tries to cover a lot of ground – the local mood in England, British government officials squabbling with each other, the war in France, and, of course, the evacuation.

Dunkirk (1958).
Dunkirk (1958).

The earnest performances by the actors makes the sum work despite the parts. The best scene comes near the end, where the troops take some time out on the beach to pray en masse. The sudden shelling by the Luftwaffe traps some of the soldiers into wondering whether they should run in the middle of Holy Communion.

The 2004 BBC docudrama examines the evacuation in exhausting detail. Divided into three episodes and running over three hours, the series shows the events of the 10 days (May 26 to June 4, 1940) during which Operation Dynamo was executed. The star of the show is Simon Russell Beale, who is fantastic as Churchill. Beale not only looks the part but also turns in an authoritative and often sympathetic performance as a man under tremendous pressure to save his country from absolute defeat. Without Beale, the docudrama is a humdrum affair that can barely keep a history nut’s attention from wavering.

Dunkirk (2004).
Dunkirk (2004).

A lesser-known French take on the event, Week-end à Zuydcoote (Weekend at Dunkirk), depicts the ordeal through the eyes of young French sergeant Maillat (Jean-Paul Belmondo, fresh from Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless) as the French troops appear torn between evacuating with the British and holding ground for a final face-off with the Germans. The film never moves away from the war and is focused on the troops at the beach, particularly, Maillat’s conversations with several soldiers that often take a philosophical turn.

Most recently, the battle on the Dunkirk beach was captured in a five-minute continuous tracking shot in Joe Wright’s Atonement (2007). Here, the hero Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), a British soldier, escapes the German forces and reaches the beach at Dunkirk. The non-stop shot takes a panoramic view of the war-ravaged beach as Turner walks around, absorbing everything. Wright adds a touch of fancy to the scene (a distant Ferris wheel with a man hanging from it, children playing, soldiers enjoying a merry-go-round) that makes it stand apart from the earlier, gritty representations of Dunkirk. It’s a sequence too beautiful for war, and, simultaneously, one that features top-notch choreography and technical finesse.

Dunkirk (2017).
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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.