What makes Christopher Nolan's films work

Hollywood's last pioneer: Christopher Nolan makes art-house films. And get blockbuster budgets for it

His position in the film industry is unique: no other director reaches such a large audience with original ideas as Christopher Nolan. There is a system for success.

Christopher Nolan may by no means be the last man who still wears a wristwatch. But for the British-American filmmaker, who celebrates his fiftieth birthday on July 30th, it is more than a pretty accessory. Nolan has an extraordinary relationship with time. This is evidenced by the actions of his films, the course of which he likes to stretch, compress or turn around, so that the viewer sometimes feels dizzy.

But even as a director, Nolan can hardly be fixed in time. As much as he pushes cinema into the future, with all sorts of technical innovations in his films, he sticks to the past of the seventh art. For example, he actively campaigns for the preservation of old film material, largely dispenses with computer effects in his films and raves about the earlier pioneers of his profession who have had a significant influence on his work. Nolan is repeatedly referred to as the Kubrick or Hitchcock of the 21st century - and may be the last of its kind.

You only have to look at the list of the most financially successful films of recent years to recognize Nolan's unique position in the industry: Since 2010, only sequels, remakes, comic and literature adaptations have made it into the annual top ten of the global box -Office. The dominance of superhero films and franchises such as “Star Wars” and “Fast & Furious” is enormous. And apparently drove the big Hollywood studios out of their appetite for risk. Why invest in film material that the audience is not already familiar with, one wonders there.

Nolan breaks the hegemony

The only exception is Christopher Nolan. He writes original scripts (read: those that are not largely based on existing material) and receives a three-digit million dollar budget from Studio Warner Bros. for their implementation. At the same time, he maintains absolute autonomy over his material.

The success proves him - and Warner Bros. - right: Nolan is obviously the only director who can break through the box-office hegemony of the big franchises on a regular basis: his penultimate film "Interstellar" took 10th place in 2014, his biggest hit " Inception »2010 ranked 4th among the world's most successful films of the year.

The expectations of his eleventh film are even greater: "Tenet", the start of which was postponed from mid-July to the end of August due to the pandemic, is in the eyes of many cinema operators the film that is supposed to lure the masses back to the orphaned cinemas. According to the studio, the two-and-a-half-hour thriller cost over $ 200 million - about as much as a superhero film.

Christopher Nolan, who has never attended film school, works on a principle that sounds simple but is difficult to implement: Never follow the expectations of others. In an interview in 2017, Nolan explained what he meant by that: "By contributing to the craft of filmmaking that others do not already do, cannot do or intend to do, you will differentiate yourself from others."

A thriller told backwards

What does Nolan do differently from everyone else? Every self-respecting director is creative with the chronology in the film. But hardly anyone with Nolan's boldness and audacity. Already in his feature film debut «Following» (1998) he experimented with a non-linear narrative structure. More sensational, because it is far more sophisticated, was Nolan's second film, "Memento": also a crime thriller, now about a man with amnesia who tries to solve the murder of his wife on his own. In order to let the viewer empathize with the man's confused sense of time, Nolan edited the film scenes in reverse chronological order. «Memento» ran backwards, so to speak. This trick earned Nolan several festival awards - and great attention in Hollywood.

In 2003, the then 33-year-old Nolan succeeded in convincing Warner Bros. that he was the right person to revive one of the studio's most lucrative but recently ailing film characters on screen: Batman. Nolan's brilliant idea was to put the comic book hero in a new context in a real world. "I wanted to research how someone could become this character under very real conditions."

In “Batman Begins” (2005), Nolan freed the film hero from both Tim Burton's Gothic undertones and the dazzling camp of his successor Joel Schumacher. Nolan's Batman was more grounded and - due to a childhood trauma on which the director focused heavily - endowed with an unusually complex psychology for superheroes. His three Batman films, the so-called "Dark Knight" trilogy, grossed almost two and a half billion dollars worldwide. And made the superheroes, ridiculed since the mid-1990s, fit for the masses again.

Unobtrusive authority

Subtle observations on the Internet, such as those that Nolan forbids his actors to take breaks from sitting on his film sets, or that Leonardo DiCaprio's hairstyle and suits in Nolan's films are based on Nolan's own hairstyle and suits, may seem like ducks or wanton ones Have found out rumor. But they show how this man is assigned a great ego from the outside. You could also say: a magnetic aura. When Nolan speaks, for example, you hang on his lips. He doesn't waste a word. His deep, controlled voice gives him an unobtrusive authority and conveys to the addressee: Here is someone who has everything under control.

Nolan's most exciting film scenes reflect this impression. Think of the attack at the beginning of “The Dark Knight” (2008). Men with cheap clown masks rob a bank, there is a bang, the bank customers crouch fearfully against a wall, the soundtrack pulsates to an electronic ticking. But the thieves do not rush, perform precision work and crack the safe. In the midst of them is the Joker, casual and cool, like the calm eye of a huge hurricane. The same picture is shown in “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012), when the villain Bane lets his henchmen rescue him from a crashing plane without batting an eyelid.

Nolan's films are now and then criticized for their alleged lack of humor - or more diffuse: for their lack of warmth. But the cool, mathematical precision with which Nolan stages large action scenes is carried away. For this purpose, the filmmaker uses his soundtracks, mostly composed by Hans Zimmer, in a very targeted manner. The analog ticking during the bank robbery in “The Dark Knight”, for example, is heard again in “Dunkirk” (2017), where it lends a nerve-wracking rhythm to the infernal warfare that takes place here on three different time levels.

Poetry on a large scale

Steven Spielberg calls Nolan the “most imaginative director of our time”, Martin Scorsese describes his work as “poetry on the largest possible scale”. In no other film by Nolan is this more true than "Inception". The psychoanalytical blockbuster, in which the film heroes penetrate the subconscious of a CEO, is currently running again in selected cinemas for the ten-year anniversary. If you want to interpret the different dream and action levels, you will find complex graphics on the Internet. Lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio says he still doesn't understand the film today.

Christopher Nolan says he doesn't draw a line between his love for high-quality cinema and his love for big films like “Star Wars” and “James Bond”. What he does are art house films with blockbuster budgets or blockbusters with art house sensibilities. They are proof that film material does not have to be broken down to the lowest common denominator in order to appeal to a large audience. Or in Nolan's words: "It is far more effective to stimulate the intelligence of the audience."