Getty: ‘So you have an idea?’

Murph: ‘No. I have a . . . feeling’.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk will undoubtedly be the historical blockbuster (or perhaps just the blockbuster) of the summer. However it is far from being the director’s first or even second (counting The Prestige) historical film. In fact Nolan has been playing with cultural, intellectual, and political themes drawn from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for many years. Nolan’s films are widely credited with being multi-layered, using philosophical, scientific and metaphysical theories to inform his action. History can also be added to this list, as Nolan has invoked, time and again, major historical trends, particularly from the Romantic period. From Arctic backdrops to the intervention of spirits and spectres, the action and aesthetic of Nolan’s films abound with the macabre, the gothic and the Romantic – with a capital ‘R’.

Some of this inspiration has been an integral part to Nolan’s story-telling. The Prestige could be described as a period piece, however it is one that makes the very most of nineteenth-century anxieties. Deception and reality are the central concerns of the protagonists, especially when they face the repercussions of new technology. Both protagonists suffer losses as a result of these “advances”, from losing their loved ones to losing parts of themselves and their pysches. While not an original story of Nolan’s (he adapted the film from Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel of the same name), his choice of the work, one that incorporates both magic and science (viewed by contemporary audiences as “electrickery”) reveals an ongoing fascination with elements of modernity.

Sometimes this fascination is clear to see, as in The Dark Knight Trilogy. Nolan has previously spoken of the debt owed to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and the inspiration it provided for The Dark Knight Rises (2012). As Jonathan Crane sits in judgment of Gotham’s former leadership, the scene is straight out of a tribunal of the Terror during the French Revolution. Gotham city justice is portrayed as nothing more than a show trial. When a Louis XV chair is slammed down for Commissioner Gordon to sit and hear his sentence from the Scarecrow, the implication couldn’t be clearer: old-school terror, the 1794 kind, has arrived in town. Armchairs and arbitrary justice aside this scene in particular shows newly-liberated Gothamites arms-outstretched and shouting in a high-vaulted room reminiscent of Jacques-Louis David’s Tennis Court Oath. As Bane and his henchmen take control of the city accomplices loot the contents of the wealthiest apartments, all of which have an ancien régime décor. Bane also calls to mind the “general will” of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the French Revolution, with his proclamations of giving power back to “you, the people”, while doing nothing of the kind.

Nolan is inspired by much more than the political action of the period though. The Romantic era marked a significant change in the view of nature and the landscape. Arctic and alpine terrain in particular became emblematic of the mystery and inaccessibility that Romantic writers craved. Mary Shelley, among others, put this very conceit to work to frame the action of Frankenstein (1818), opening and closing with man’s struggle exemplified by an inability to dominate his surroundings. Contemplation of these landscapes allowed one to experience the sublime, a central characteristic of Romanticism, and a feeling embodied in the viewer by the sheer beauty and awesomeness of Nature.

These terrains appear across Nolan’s work. Inception (2010) opens with a young man thrown ashore by waves, in what we later learn is “limbo”, an unconstructed netherworld of the mind. In the closing scenes a desolate land is used once again, the snow-bound fortress representing the deepest levels of Robert Fischer’s consciousness. In Batman Begins (2005) Bruce Wayne receives his training on a glacier, the melting ice adding the distinctive cracks to the diegesis of the sequence. This however is only after Wayne has completed the perilous climb and found a mysterious blue flower. This is an unmistakable Romantic reference; Novalis, the German author first wrote of the blue flower, a symbol of inspiration to young Romantics and generations that followed. The blue flower is also key to the ensuing action in Batman Begins; it contains psychotropic properties, and as such provides the hallucinogen required to incite Gotham’s citizens to tear themselves and the city apart.

The poetic license of the landscape is not always confined to a rural setting. For instance, in Inception, Paris works particularly well with regards to architecture, of both space and the mind. As Ariadne toys with the layout of the city/dream-scape it is reminiscent of Haussmann’s nineteenth-century reform of the city streets, cutting through centuries-old alleys to create something more impressive – just as huge boulevards were created out of jumbles of medieval streets, Ariadne folds and bends those layouts to create new magical spaces of exploration. Like Haussmann she works on the flow of the city, but this time in the realm of the unconscious.

Investigating the limits of the human mind, and what precisely constitutes human consciousness has provided Nolan with much of the action for several films. In order to explore the mind Romantic theorists wanted to move beyond mere “reason” as they saw it. The Romantic age has often been called an age of feeling, one that overtook its predecessor, the Age of Reason.[1] This precedence of feeling over thinking, or the reconciliation of the two, is a theme that appears repeatedly through Nolan’s stories, sometimes where you’d least expect to find it. Interstellar (2014) has been praised for its interpretation of scientific theory, is also a story in which love is the answer. Its theme of exploration is manifold. As much as the protagonists travel the limits of time and space, they also explore the boundaries of their consciousness, their memories, and their conceptions of the universe. Only as the story reaches a climax, a story that has relied upon mathematical theory to explain much to ourselves and the characters, do we see the role played by emotion, and most potently that of love.

This hearkens to the Romantic era in a very powerful way. Just as those who explored the recesses of the mind in the late eighteenth century Nolan has offered us an answer used many times before. Cooper and Brand debate the uses of love in Interstellar with Cooper reducing it to a social utility. Brand sees something more, that love offers “some evidence, some artifact of higher dimensions that we can’t consciously perceive”. As Cooper finds out, it is love that is the key to understanding and to solving humanity’s predicament, proving Brand’s point that “love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space”.

In 1776 Johann Gottfried Herder attempted to explore the mind in unprecedented ways. In “Cognition and Sensations of the Soul” he sought to “problematise” an early form of neuroscience, and sought to explain how the body, the soul, the consciousness, and the “spirit” are connected, how they communicate and how precisely their interaction could be charted. Herder was limited by the advances of his time, but he was able to outline theories of the nervous system, of the subconscious, and indeed of the significance of emotion with regards to cognition. He called love “the flame of all thought and sensation”, and “the highest reason”, the “highest, divinest”. Herder’s conclusion was to see love as more than mere emotion, an emblematic view echoed throughout the Romantic period.[2]

Lastly, Inception’s moody brilliance hinged on our willingness to accept that dream invasion was possible. Indeed the audience’s compliance in a way, mirrors that of the nineteenth century séances, and those of Mesmer in the eighteenth century. The nineteenth century was a century of the sub-conscious, intent on the exploration of the interior mind, even the thoughts hidden from their thinker. The interpretation of dreams formed a key part of the development of modern neuroscience. It was accompanied by other “pseudo-sciences”, the most popular of which was the relentless fascination with the dead, and how to contact them. Ghosts appear in Nolan’s films with great regularity. In Memento (2000) a man is haunted by the memory of his wife, as is Robert Angier in The Prestige. In Inception Mal, or at least the projection of her, causes havoc through Dom’s guilt and grief. Bruce Wayne’s traditional agonizing over his dead parents’ untimely death is ramped up a notch, providing much of the motivation behind the Dark Knight’s actions in Batman Begins and beyond. In Interstellar Cooper is at once present but also the ghost that haunts his daughter; time, space, and alternate dimensions separate Nolan’s characters, but like a medium at a séance, he brings them together.

Even Nolan and Thomas’s production company brings this period to mind: Syncopy. Defined as a loss of consciousness or fainting, it is evocative of the research into hysteria and the redefinition of mental states and illness during the nineteenth century (best illustrated by the Brouillet portrait of Charcot’s demonstrations at Salpêtriére). From the animal magnetism of Mesmer to the early psychiatric work of Freud it was a century which embraces what was previously hidden in the shadows, and sought to cast light into darkness. The correlation is apt. Like those early investigators of the human subconscious, Nolan has, from the start, been plumbing the depths of what is possible both in the medium of cinema and in the minds of his audience.


[1] Tim Blanning, The Romantic Revolution (London, 2010)

[2] Johann Gottfried von Herder, “On the Cognition and Sensation of the Human Soul”, (1778)