2014 was quite a year for remembrance and important anniversaries. If you’re a Maltese geek like myself, you could have celebrated the milestones of Malta’s national development and/or the Dark Knight’s 75th anniversary. More importantly, the year marked the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. This Christmas thus marks the same anniversary of the 1914 Christmas Truce, a fact not lost on the people over at Sainsbury’s, amongst others. A fact that a good number of people may not know, however, is that there is also film on the Truce which was produced a decade ago, and it’s actually rather good.
Looking through the usual sleuth of articles for suggested viewing, you find the usual suspects, including A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Miracle on 34th Street and A Nightmare Before Christmas. All of these are suggestions I agree with, but I think it’s a shame that there’s one glaring omission: Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas). This 2005 French film – produced, fittingly enough, in collaboration with the UK, Germany, Belguium and Romania – written and directed by Christian Carion, tends to be overlooked, but I sincerely believe it to be one of the best Christmas films to date.
The (True) Story
A lot has been said about the First World War and about its disastrous effects on all aspects of life, but not much is said about one of the most intriguing episodes. Despite that fact that most soldiers had been informed that they would be home by Christmas, the reality is that all sides had almost reached a stalemate, the conflict turning into protracted and horrific trench and warfare. When the fabled 1914 Christmas came, all became quiet, and in the barren battlefield occurred the greatest of miracles: in an attempt at goodwill for the occasion, French, British and German soldiers came together and franternised along multiple points of the French and German fronts, imposing an unofficial temporary truce.
The amazing episode could be described as a both a product of an era and its end. The gentlemanly conduct of soldiery – reminiscent of 19th century Romanticism – allowed warfare to be conducted face-to-face and the appreciation of the other’s humanity to take place more easily, soon afterwards replaced by tactical warfare and the use of long-distance indiscriminate weaponry. However, there’s something inherently universal and compelling about how, in a battlefield where humanity is discarded for expediency, opposing sides manage to remind themselves of their common roots and become brothers. The fact that it is indeed so faithful to a true story that is linked to Christmas makes it a brilliant Christmas film.
Indeed, the film manages to both capture the historic period accurately and keep this underlying meaning relevant by providing engrossing and human characters – individuals within the larger armies – without a detriment to historical accuracy. It takes full advantage of its dramatisation to keep viewers invested in the more personal conflicts and dilemmas, so that by the time characters reach their end points, viewers cannot but want a better and more hopeful tomorrow, realising that the same cold machinery that leads them there is still here today in some form or another. You cannot but ask what we’re fighting for in the present.
It’s also appreciated that – despite being a primarily French production – the film is also multilingual. It thus not only retains an additional bit of authenticity but also subtly reinforces the differences seen more blatantly in the different uniforms and distance between the trenches of the different sides.
A Commentary on the Great War
While Joyeux Noël isn’t the average Christmas film, it isn’t the average war film either. While it does cover the more overt horror of warfare, it also offers insight into the more psychological elements of the First World War. The effective opening scenes of the film depict children reciting chilling rhymes in the classroom, cursing the nations their respective country opposes in the War. The British child’s rhyme calls for the outright and complete extermination of Germans, women and children included. It reflects the fact that common soldier was force-fed doctrine which de-humanises the other side from a young age, upholding nationalism and becoming willing to die for King and country. More tellingly, the empty classroom not only shifts the focus to the children themselves, but could also serve as a reminder that these same children will become known as the lost generation.
The film also delves into the relationship between soldiers at the front and their commanding officers safe well behind the lines. It’s something Blackadder Goes Forth effectively did in spades with its black humour, only here it’s treated with far less comedy. The soldiers’ superiors are shown to be living comfortably and to be unsympathetic to their soldiers – out of touch with the realities at the front – subsequently punishing them harshly for their actions. The German troops are reprimanded and informed that they are to be shipped to the Eastern front, the permission to see their families while passing through their homeland denied. Private Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann) and his lover Anna Sørensen (Diane Kruger) surrender to the French to remain together and escape Sprink’s punishment by his superiors. Father Palmer’s (Gary Lewis) battalion is disbanded in shame, and he is is replaced by a bishop (Ian Richardson) who preaches that the war is a crusade to kill every last barbaric Hun, leaving his faith in the hierarchy of the Church shaken. Lieutenant Audebert (Guillaume Canet) is to be sent to Verdun and receives a dressing down from his father, himself a general in the French army. As tensions between the two escalate, he defends his fraternisation and expresses his disgust for the civilians and superiors who speak of sacrifice without knowing anything of the real struggle in the trenches.
While the characters featured in the film are not historically-accurate representations of actual people, Carion writes a group of diverse characters viewers get to know and, more importantly empathise with and truly feel for. The Scottish are represented by Catholic priest Father Palmer, the soldier Jonathan (Steven Robertson) who is absolutely devastated by the death of his brother and Officer Gordon (Alex Ferns) who helps broker the Christmas truce. Frenchmen Lieutenant Audebert and simple batman Private Ponchel (Dany Boon) are kept from their families stuck behind the short distance of no-man’s land and German occupied France. Rounding out the main cast are the opera singing duo of Sprink and his Danish lover Anna Sørensen (whose presence on the front is, admittedly, a bit of poetic licence) along with Lieutnant Horstmayer (Daniel Brühl). Each character is, in turn, successfully brought to life by each respective actor’s brilliant performances.
Carion writes these characters expertly, making them individuals in their own right, while also managing to uses each character to further the themes of the film. He also manages to create a link between characters immediately by showing us that defining moment of their lives when they learned that war had been declared. In the present, they are shown forming a subtle part of each other’s daily life, as the rowdiness of the Scots irritates friend and foe alike and the Germans use a French alarm bell ringing as their mid-morning signal. After coming to know the characters, Carion uses their fates as a poignant reminder of the cost of their insubordination. Audebert, for instance, remains unsure about the fate of his wife and unborn child, only to be informed by a dying Ponchel; Ponchel is shot by a despondent Jonathan (on orders from his officer) while traversing no-man’s land in a borrowed German coat, after having spent an afternoon with his family thanks to his new German friends and learning of the birth of Audebert’s son, Henri.
We even get to have space for some humour like the clever retort “You don’t have to invade Paris to drop round for a drink”, or Ponchet’s attempts to win the battle with his enemies and allies alike for the right to call a cat Nestor rather than the Scots’ Felix. Not only does this endear the characters to viewers, but it also underlines the fact that, stripped of allegiance and uniform, these men are individuals.
The Reason for the Season
One of my favourite scenes is all sides sitting together celebrating Christmas mass in Latin. It’s no longer than a couple of minutes, but I find it to be very powerful, with different people overcoming their differences through faith in celebrating the birth of Christ through a common language. Christmas should always be a reminder that God Himself became incarnate to go through the human experience, to share the same brotherhood with us that we should with others.
Despite the fact that the celebration of mass in Latin is something usually associated with Catholicism in particular, the scene also parallels and contrasts with the claims made by the bishop in the later scene in which he replaces Father Palmer. Indeed, the fraternisers are made a single family though their common Christian customs and sharing memories, food and football, despite the fact that each side claims moral superiority and that God is behind them and against their enemies.
While other Christmas films focus on the mere material or familial aspects of the holiday, they tend to miss the actual reason for the season. Joyeux Noël is a refreshing take on the true meaning of Christmas which just gets it right on a fundamental level.
Music is also a major accompaniment to the the soldiers’ customs as an adhesive supporting their fraternity. Sprink’s superior officer tells him that he is useless as a soldier because of his profession as a singer. It is, of course, the contradictory presence of music on the battlefield that leads to the unplanned ceasefire when both sides respond to each others’ Christmas carols. As the Crown Prince of Prussia informs his men of their punishment towards the end of the film, he snatches a harmonica and crushes it beneath the heel of his boot; the soldiers, however, keep the music alive, humming The Franternisers’ Hymn they get from the Scots on their way to the Eastern Front.
Apart from being a potent storytelling element within the film’s story itself, Phillipe Rombi provides a truly emotional and engrossing score. The film’s soundtrack also features beautiful performances of traditional carols and festive songs like Adeste Fideles, Silent Night and Auld Lang Syne. The main theme tune co-written by Lori Barth, L’Hymne des Fraternisés/I’m Dreaming of Home, embodies the film perfectly; it is an uplifting but ultimately poignant piece which captures any soldier’s distant dream of home.
Joyeux Noël is quite simply a brilliant Christmas film. It’s based on a very true story and manages to provide a genuine representation of the goodwill and brotherhood that the occasion calls us to uphold throughout the rest of the year. The characters featured are compelling to watch and manage to make the stakes personal without diverting too much attention from the wider story. The music featured is not only integral to the story but well worth a listen on its own. All in all, despite being a period piece, Joyeux Noël simply transcends the history it represents to become a both heart-warming and heart-wrenching timely reminder of the common humanity we all share. I simply cannot recommend it enough.
Joyeux Noël. Frohe Weihnachten. Merry Christmas.
- The Real Story Behind The Christmas Truce in World War I (io9.com)
- Joyeux Noël – Let Us Never Forget (chronicchronicler.wordpress.com)
- Joyeux Noel, Frohe Weihnachten, and Merry Christmas (plentyofpopcorn.wordpress.com)