France/Germany/UK (2005) Dir. Christian Carion
1914 and World War I is under way. A few days before Christmas the French and Scottish armies lead a joint attack against the Germans with many casualties and fatalities incurred to all sides. When Christmas Eve arrives the three armies all enjoy the evening in their own way, with the Scots setting the bar with some bagpipe playing. The Germans counter by having Private Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann), a famous German tenor, to sing for them. An impromptu duet between piper and tenor follows and the three sides mutually agree on a temporary truce for Christmas.
What to us was a simple act of humanity by a group of men forced to fight a war that had nothing to do with them was in fact seen as a gross act of insubordination and treason but the higher ups of the respective armies. This honourable moment in history, including the now legendary football match on No Man’s Land, which will forever be etched in our minds, has been given the dramatic treatment from French director Christian Carion. While it is devised to play on our emotions by once again re-iterating the true cost of war is a human and not a political one, it widens its scope by showing us that the feeling was prevalent within all three parties involved and not putting the onus on any one army as a protagonist or antagonist.
Of the many soldiers and auxiliary players in the war, the focus has been pared down to a few from each side: French commander Lieutenant Audebert (Guillaume Canet), a reluctant officer and son of a general (Bernard Le Coq), and his wing man Private Ponchel (Dany Boon); Scots officer Lieutenant Gordon (Alex Fearns – yes, nasty Trevor from Eastenders) and Jonathon (Steven Robertson), a private whose brother was an early fatality; German senior Lieutenant Horstmayer (Daniel Brühl), the aforementioned Sprink and his lover, Danish soprano Anna Sørensen (Diane Kruger).
The latter ends up on the front line when she is called upon to sing for Kaiser Wilhelm III, and arranges to have Sprink sing with her. In turn, Sprink convinces the Kaiser that it would be benefit morale in the trenches to have some music at Christmas. With a Scottish Roman Catholic priest present Father Palmer (Gary Lewis), Anna helps give the troops a carol service they’ll never forget. But she and Sprink can’t bear to be apart, hoping they can flee to Holland for safety, a plan thwarted by Sprink’s military commitments, forcing them to resort to desperate measures to achieve their goal.
This is a slightly melodramatic subplot to underline the pervasive theme that haunts all of the soldiers: the distance between them and their families. When the truce occurs, the men all share photos of their loved ones as an ice breaker. Another recurring feature is the bundle of letters from the men to their families that each side hands to the others when they think they are more likely to have a better chance of making it home than via the military post. The pile grows with each passing of hands but ends up in official hands alerting the superiors of the lack of expected warfare, bitterly angry at this disobedient outbreak of peace.
Carion’s film may not be so divisive as to force the viewer to pick sides among the soldiers, portraying them all as pawns in a much bigger game, but instead it shifts that onus onto the superiors who enforce the resuming of fighting, aghast that there was fraternising with the enemy instead of bloodshed. Adding fuel to the fire is the Bishop (a chilling Ian Richardson, in one of his last roles) whose sermon to the troops is more a bellicose rally cry against the “subhuman” Hun, showing that the real humanity was ironically on the battlefield! History has shown that such intolerance was rife back then with many men who refused to fight were executed for desertion, while sufferers of shellshock and depression were treated with equal – and fatal – contempt, therefore this isn’t much of a stretch of the imagination to accept this.
What makes this film work is its intent to not preach on the subject but simply tell its story. The above incident is the closest we get to audience manipulation but it was a vital part of this genuine event so to omit it would be remiss of Carion. For those with an interest of actual warfare there is some present, mostly in the first act, but the bulk of the story is devoted to the peaceful coming together of the three armies. It is beautifully acted with neat little touches to differentiate between the nationalities, far more welcome than overt stereotyping (are you listening Hollywood?), adding realism to this multi-national event. The only real quibble is Diane Kruger’s miming to soprano Natalie Dessay’s singing voice is too obvious, but this isn’t enough to ruin the experience.
An argument could be made that Carion could have added a little more bite to his film, but as the note prior to the closing credits this was a tribute to those men who chose peace over fighting so perhaps avoiding the cynical approach was the more prudent move. There is no avoiding the fact that is a deeply affecting and thoughtful film that allows us to appreciate the true value of peace and freedoms, and how war affects us beyond the physical loses we know all to well.
Joyeux Noël isn’t your traditional Christmas film but it is one that should be seen from both a historical and sentimental perspective.