Movie Review
Joyeux Noël
Director: Christian Carion
Cast: Diane Kruger, Benno Furmann, Guillaume Canet

the seminal moment in Christian Carion’s World War I film, Joyeux Noël (“Merry Christmas” in English), is inspired by an extraordinary coincidence. The moment occurs on Christmas Eve, 1914, at a snow-covered battlefield in France, where a French and English charge was fended off by the Germans in their trenches only days earlier. A Scottish priest, Palmer (Gary Lewis), pulls out his bagpipes. He plays a sentimental song for his countrymen, “I’m Dreaming of Home.” The Scots sing quietly, dismally into the cold air. The song glides down the line into the French trench. It crosses the field and falls on the ears of the Germans. And in the German hole, Nickolaus Sprink (Benno Furmann), a tenor from the Berlin Opera drafted into the army, listens. When Scot’s song is over, Sprink begins: “Silent Night.” Soon after, Palmer plays along. The song switches to “Adeste Fidelis” as Sprink steps out of his trench. He walks toward his enemy’s side, followed hotly by his commanding officer. The Germans are met at the center of the field by the Scots’ leader. The French lieutenant, Audebert (Guillaume Canet), soon follows. And in the ensuing meeting, the tenor and three commanders agree to let their boys put the war on hold, just for Christmas night.

The coincidence here lies with the three commanding men. Joyeux Noël works hard to display from its outset that these men were born hating the other side; the movie opens with schoolboys from the three nations reciting patriotic odes against their European enemies. Yet here, in the first year of the most brutal and ill-conceived war any of their nations had known, each officer had enough humanity within him to privately agree to peace on a meaningful night. Since Carion’s film—his second feature—is based on real events, this coincidence, it turns out, is true.

The subject of Joyeux Noël’s truth or non-fiction is a problematic starting point, however, since it easily leads to a digression: How well did Carion capture the real events and to what extent is his film legitimately true? Here, that question is easily answered: “Who cares?” Far more important than the film’s degree of factuality is the innovative and evocative way in which Carion depicts WWI. His film encompasses three armies, but brilliantly scalps the story down to three people—Palmer, Sprink, and Audebert—and the three people most on their minds while serving on the front: William, a boy from Palmer’s town, whose patriotic fervor before the war drew the reluctant Palmer into it; Anna, Sprink’s lover, who spends the war trying to get Sprink off the front line; and Audebert’s father, a general trying to do the same for his son. These sub-characters carry with them a sense that the miraculous events that Christmas Eve were meant to happen, that it was indeed destiny for peace to be momentarily restored amid terrible and all-too-familiar violence.

After all, Joyeux Noël includes little fighting and almost no blood, as opposed to the WWI films it immediately evokes: Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) and the far more recent effort by Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, A Very Long Engagement (2004). In fact, in the film’s sole scene of men charging into No Man’s Land—that most typical and deadly moment in any account of WWI—the viewer never sees any wide or long image of the conflict. Instead, the camera stays noticeably close to two men: Audebert, leading the charge, and William, the young Scot forced to leave his dying brother in the center of the field. Carion and cinematographer Walther van den Ende couple their battle footage with a beautiful set of wide, nearly still images: Sprink and his lover enjoy a night away from the war, caressing softly in the corner of a cozy hotel room, beside a roaring fire.

The three commanders sit in a meeting in the center of the field on a bright Christmas Day, discussing a second break in fighting to exchange and bury the dead, a Christmas tree in the foreground left, the charred frame of a burned-out house dominating the back right. In these masterfully realized frames, the filmmakers develop visuals more provocative than any of the war scenes. These peaceful moments depict unity in spite of ingrained hatred, thoughtfulness over violent action. Carion has, in effect, made a Christmas movie out of a war film.

The meeting of the commanders and the resulting ceasefire leads to a series of discoveries. The Germans meet the Scots and the French. Soldiers on both sides laugh and play with the men they were just attempting to kill. The general sense on any side is that the “other men” are not that different, despite years of patriotic fervor claiming otherwise. Drinks are shared. Two men bicker over the name of a cat, which, it turns out, crosses the line often itself. The night ends with a midnight mass for all nationalities, and the charity continues in the following days.

In the film, these discoveries are, on the whole, child-like. The soldiers are rather like toddlers pulling their hands away from their eyes to find that the things that were there in front of them before do, indeed, remain. They seem to giggle at the normalcy of their foes, and are quick to break out into games and soccer matches. These soldiers come to understand their “enemies” as the men most deserving of their admiration and friendship. Audebert notes to his father that the Germans in the trenches have more understanding of the war than any Frenchmen safe and secure in his home.

Alas, this kinship was never going to last, as—in keeping with historical events—the men of the three armies involved in the improvised ceasefire are each reprimanded and replaced by recruits well-versed in patriotic hatred. But if the original soldiers at the front appear, initially, as children, it’s ultimately the generals who are the most childish. Germany’s crown prince scolds his soldiers to no effect: They hum “I’m Dreaming of Home,” as they’re carted off toward the Russian front. The Scottish general receives similar non-compliance from his soldiers after ordering them to shoot a German crossing the lines.

Joyeux Noël is, finally, not a film designed to recreate a moment in war, nor is it really a comment on war today. It’s, instead, a hopeful tale, where a surprise meeting between a few men has a more profound impact than national politics, and coincidences make the greatest difference.

By: Arthur Ryel-Lindsey
Published on: 2006-03-17
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