Cast: Diane Krüger, Benno Fürmann, Guillaume Canet, Gary Lewis, Dany Boon. Daniel Brühl, Lucas Belvaux, Bernard Le Coq, Alex Ferns, Christopher Fulford.
If Gallipoli (2005) was one of the saddest films about WWI, Joyeux Noël is perhaps the most hopeful about human beings at war. The film fictionalises the true story of the fraternisations that took place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1914, at several points along the German front, when trenches between Germans and Allied Scottish and French soldiers were often a mere four to six metres apart. The film is based on the account in a chapter in the book Batailles de Flandres et D’Artois 1914-1918 by Yves Buffetaut which documents how enemies, face to face, dropped their rifles and became brothers in the human family under the Christmas Eve truce.
Beginning with gentle absurdity – earnest schoolboys in classrooms in France, England and Germany reciting in their own language what appear to be identical causes de guerre, the theme is set of a universal belief in a national right to wage war. That each recitation makes other countries the aggressor, justifying retaliation - and that each warring nation has total belief in being backed by God - could even be comic, were it not so deadly in intent and outcome. Black and white pre-war stills of women, children and families, nannies with prams and babies indicate before the opening credits what war purportedly protects. The absurdist tone emerges alongside, and is countered by, the depiction of deeply experienced emotion, determined humanity and humour. Like Gallipoli (2005), the most brutal war-mongers are theoreticians far removed from the front line.
The film rotates around the principal characters of each country from their call up to their time in the trenches. Excited young Scottish brothers William and Jonathan (Robin Laing and Steven Robertson) set off for training in Glasgow, followed by their more grave Anglican minister Palmer (Gary Lewis) as stretcher-bearer. An announcement from Kaiser Wilhelm that war has begun interrupts an operatic performance of famous German tenor Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann), soon to be a soldier, and his lover, brilliant Danish soprano Anna Sörensen (Diane Krüger). French Lieutenant Audebert (Guillaume Canet) takes a last look at the photo of his wife before being sent to the front line. The hasty prayers, fiercely kissed photos, and grim faces of the men in the French trenches as they prepare bayonets and rifles to engage German machine guns show human beings in the duty and business-end of war. Scottish William dies in the first engagement leaving Jonathan alone to become increasingly deranged by survivor guilt. William’s body lies, frozen stiff, in no-man’s land a few feet from the Scottish trench.
On a silent, snow-fallen Christmas Eve, the bizarre sight of little, lanterned Christmas trees, intruding exactly every five metres in the German trenches, is matched and everyone’s attention focused by the eerie sound of Scottish bagpipes. The Scots start to sing the sweetly haunting ‘Dreaming of Home’. The French listen, stunned and suspicious, as Sprink begins ‘Adeste Fideles’. They are even more astounded when he picks up a Christmas tree and clambers out, singing in a rich and fluid tenor voice, on to the snowy no-man’s land. By turns naturally tentative and relaxing into goodwill, all the men clamber out and stare openly at each other. Cigarettes, bottles of alcohol and chocolate are shared and exchanged. Photos are shown with proud, shy smiles and mutual appreciation. Later, when Palmer holds a Christmas mass, everyone indistinguishably voices the appropriate responses. Anna, visiting her lover Sprink, sings a spellbinding ‘Ave Maria’. And the next day there are football, cards and checkers games, an ‘official’ truce to bury their dead and even more bizarrely, but fitting in with their newfound camaraderie, advance notice of shell attacks that have each platoon of soldiers sheltering with their purported enemies. One of the sweetest things about this film is the utter sanity of the idea that once you have talked with your ‘enemy’, shaken his hand and shared his experience, you cannot shoot him.
Not so the aftermath of the fraternisation, held by officials, army generals and senior clergy to be both cowardly and unpatriotic and with punishing consequences for the men concerned as they realise no-one who was not there would understand.
The portrayals of these WWI soldiers are appropriately of mostly young, sincere, earnest and decent men unlike the cynically hard-bitten and paranoid (and better brain-washed?) soldiers of later wars. Daniel Brühl as the humane German Jewish Lieutenant Horstmayer, Dany Boon as Ponchel the French barber who sneaks behind German lines to visit his mother living a short distance from the front, and Gary Lewis as the Anglican minister resolutely serving beside his fallen parishioners are all noteworthy. German-born Diane Krüger is nuanced as the Dane Anna, with more presence and gravitas than in previous performances I’ve seen. The voices of coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay and tenor Rolando Villazon are riveting. And the ginger tomcat who trots from trench to trench, one of those stranger-than-fiction actual occurrences, brings out more humanity in the men, if not their generals.
Hopefully this film, although we see it out of the context of war-time patriotism justified by propaganda-fed hatred of an ‘inhuman’ enemy, will make a difference, at least in our appreciation that love and brotherhood can surface even in the very teeth of war. Certainly its effect is moving and inspiring.
© Avril Carruthers 18th December 2005
What do you think of Joyeux NoŽl
Share your opinions on our forum