As a British person, I have grown up with the tradition of Remembrance. Every year, since 1919 on the second Sunday of November, the closest Sunday to the 11th November (Armistice Day) we hold Remembrance Sunday. On this day we remember those who gave their lives in times of war. It is a very sombre occasion with two minute’s silence being held. It’s a sad and beautiful affair.
However while remembering the dead of those who fought is a practice I shall hold no quarrel with, I somehow think we forget those who did not fight. For those who came together upon Christmas time and walked across the corpse and shell littered no man’s land to shake hands, share stories and leave aside animosity to be together at a time of merriment. The occasion I am talking of, of course, is the Christmas truce of 1914, and this has been captured superbly by the French film, Joyeux Noël.
A somewhat underrated and forgotten film, though only made in 2005, Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas for those unversed in the French tongue or haven’t already checked with Google Translate) is a film that one can hardly find fault with. The opening scene of a French, British and German schoolboys reciting warmongering poems to an eerily empty classroom gives the viewer the sense that they represent the lost generation, or at least what is left of it, with the rest of the class, the bright hopes for the future, having died in the war which the young boys describe with nationalistic fervour.
It is with this harrowing opening scene that the film sets the scene, leading us to the introduction of the men and women who will become the centre of this story. The film follows the lives and action of the Scottish, French and German soldiers in the days leading up to, during, and after the Christmas truce of 1914 highlighting both the horror of war and the ability to overcome ones prejudices of one another in order to celebrate Christmas.
Although a Christmas film it is not a Christmas film in the traditional sense as it blatantly flaunts itself as an anti-war film yet is not so preachy as to be off-putting. Director and writer Christian Carion manages the films message in such a way that you are made fully aware of the horrors of war whilst also both simultaneously restoring and destroying your faith in humanity. It leaves you wishing for betterment and a hope that we have progressed from such times when we would blindly go to war for King and Country.
Despite the French title, Joyeux Noël is a multilingual film with French, English and German spoken by the respective forces with actors from those respective nations, which gives the film an authentic feel and accentuates the differences between the armies through language, as well as uniform and the hundred metres of no-man’s land dividing them.
What also must be praised about this film is its handling of the main characters. The Scottish are given the worried Catholic priest turned stretcher-bearer Father Palmer (Gary Lewis), the soldier Jonathon who is absolutely devastated by the death of his brother (Steven Robertson) and Officer Gordon (Alex Ferns) who helps broker the Christmas truce. The French meanwhile are given Lieutenant Audebert (Guillaume Canet) who is torn away from his pregnant wife by the war, leaving him unaware of whether she and the child survived childbirth.Alongside him we have his batman (assistant not superhero) Private Ponchel (Dany Boon) who misses his family who, like Audebert, he cannot reach, with both families being stuck behind the short distance of no-man’s land and German occupied France. Finally we have the opera singing duo of Private Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann) and his Danish lover Anna Sørensen (Diane Kruger) along with slightly irritated but professional Leutnant Horstmayer (Daniel Brühl).
I apologise for what appears, and in fact is, merely a list of actors most of whom many of you have never even heard of. Well the fact is it was needed. All these characters are built upon, leaving you loving or loathing them with as much intensity as you would a single character for a film of the same length (two hours roughly). To achieve that and to put the message of peace and goodwill is a masterstroke in this reviewer’s humble, but by no means unjustified, opinion.
You are drawn into their individual stories whilst never forgetting the overarching picture and are allowed insights into the minor characters which you somehow don’t feel attached to in other films; yet most assuredly do in this one, especially when one considers that these men come together in fraternity when perhaps just days before they only came together with rifle in hand and grenade in the other.
What helps this film is the overarching concepts of music, which the Germans and Scots taking pride of place in this. With the bagpipes and operatic tones from each side, it shows that though they may not understand each other through language, music speaks no language and even if the voices sings words you cannot understand you will know the lyrics through the rhythm and tone of the music. I do not wish to spoil for those who haven’t watched this film, but there are many beautiful moments where music transcends national and linguistic divides, especially by the end of the film.
But music is not the only adhesive to this spirit of fraternity. Religion, through the Latin masses of Catholicism assists in bringing the majority Catholic forces brought together. Highlighting that even through these customs they are one, even when all the while forces on each side claims the right of God is behind them and against their enemies. Even drink, photos of their families, food, and of course, football bring each side together in the spirit of goodwill to all men.
Yet even a film with such a positive message, there lingers the foulness humanity breathes into young idealistic men. For those who know their history, they know what becomes of those who fraternised together at this time, but for those unversed in this moment of history I shall remain silent and let them learn for themselves what people say and do in times of misplaced patriotism.
As a reviewer, I feel I should be more critical about this film as, more often than not, I usually despise a great many Christmas films for their sickening joyous and, for lack of a better term, cheesy tone. Yet Joyeux Noël sidesteps the inane and empty Christmas frivolities to bring us something with meaning. Even for those who don’t celebrate Christmas, Joyeux Noël can have a lasting effect on you that can be at times tear-rendering and heart-warming. This film is a truly human one, bringing together people in time of devastation and death to show that, in the end, we are all not so different as people would have us believe.
So in the tradition of remembrance, perhaps now, only a year before this events centenary we should remember this event now. So for all those reading I shall leave you with this:
Joyeux Noël. Frohe Weihnachten. Merry Christmas.
- Joyeux Noel (2005) (thecinemaid.net)
- Joyeux Noёl: The Beginnings of WWI and the Christmas Truce of 1914 (theoccidentalobserver.net)
- ‘Joyeux Noel’, Frohe Weihnachten, and Merry Christmas (plentyofpopcorn.wordpress.com)