Joyeux Noël


The events of Joyeux Noël would scarcely be believed if the movie was a work of pure fiction. The greatest strength of Christian Carion’s film is that, if it were mere fiction, the film might actually make you believe the incredible events. The story is crafted carefully and the characters well-drawn, so that when the central event of the film occurs, their motivations and actions are believable within the context that they take place.

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The film gives a fictionalized account of the “Christmas Truce” of 1914, when soldiers of both sides, moved by carols sung in the trenches on Christmas Eve, declared a temporary cease fire. They met in No Man’s Land, exchanged gifts of chocolate and champagne, buried their dead who had been rotting between the battle lines, even played games of soccer.

The film opens with scenes of children from every side depicted in the film, German, French and Scottish, reciting warlike propaganda rhymes that were commonplace in the years leading up to war as well as during the war. This economical touch deftly sets the backdrop of extreme nationalism against which this story occurred. By Christmas, 1914, World War I had already stagnated into the trench lines that would dominate the rest of the war, but the conflict had not quite descended into the brutal quagmire it would become.


We see the conflict largely through six or seven sets of eyes, more or less evenly divided between the sides. The Scottish side includes two brothers (Steven Robertson and Robin Laing) who joined not out of nationalism or any hatred of the enemy but simply out of a sense of adventure. “Finally, something is going to happen in our lives.” When one of the brothers is killed in a senseless assault into the teeth of the German machine guns that begins the main action of the film, the survivor spends the rest of the film writing pleasant fictions home to his mother, unable to tell her that one of her sons is dead. Their parish priest (Gary Lewis) is along as a stretcher bearer but often finds that his humanity is an impediment to doing as he is told.

On the French side, their officer (Guillaume Canet), the son of their commanding general, who worries about his pregnant wife stranded behind enemy lines. Our eyes on the German side belong the Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann), an operatic tenor conscripted into the army. His lover, Anna Sorenson (Diane Kruger), comes to visit him on Christmas under the pretense of performing for the troops.

Despite all of the nationalism, the demonization of the enemy as sub-human, the propaganda is impotent against the universality of the Christmas music sung by soldiers on all sides. Once the Scottish bagpipers began accompanying Sprink on “Silent Night,” the walls between the soldiers begin to crumble and their commanders meet in the middle of “no man’s land” to discuss a cease fire for the remainder of Christmas Eve.

Naturally, their superiors are horrified, since finding common ground with the enemy undermines the whole rationale behind the war effort. The units involved are broken up or shipped to other fronts. The Anglican priest is chastised by his bishop (Ian Richardson) for leading his men astray. The bishop goes on to deliver a sermon which is little more than propaganda (and is taken virtually word-for-word from an actual sermon). Change a few words and the sermon would have felt right at home in a Wahhabi madrasa.

The film can be schmaltzy but it’s hard to find a meaningful Christmas story that isn’t sentimental on more than one level. It’s theme of the universality of Christmas is a powerful analogy for the things that unify people being ultimately more powerful than what divides them, if they simply allow it to happen.

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