Written by Christian Carion
Directed by Christian Carion
As I look back over the last century, perhaps the greatest change has been the personalization of conflicts throughout the globe. By that, I mean that if you look back on wars through the centuries, it would seem as if the leaders of countries squabbled for some reason, then sent armies (and sometimes navies) of their minions to duke it out on the battlefield. In some ways, it was like a game with lives in the balance (and I’m sure at times to those who started the conflict it was a game, the lives of their subjects notwithstanding). However, sometime in the last fifty years or so that changed. Now it seems like we are fighting more personal conflicts, sometimes not even where it’s country against country; leader against leader. Now it seems to be philosophy versus philosophy, or belief versus belief. We know the enemy is as human as us, we just don’t care anymore.
In Joyuex Noel, a time is depicted when the soldiers on the battlefield had one of those moments when they realized that the “enemy” was just as human as they were and they were all pawns being used by the leaders for reasons not all of them understood.
The year is 1914. It was one of the bloodiest times of the first World War. The Scottish and French are fighting on the same side against the Germans. As Christmas approaches, Joyeux Noel follows the story of four people as their lives prepare to intersect on Christmas Eve.
Nikolaus Sprink (portrayed by Benno Fuhrmann) is a German opera singer who has been drafted into the German Army and has an encounter with his lover, Anna (portrayed by Diane Kruger) when she manages to arrange a recital close to the front. She travels with him back to the front when the recital is over.
There they find spirits up, but still, the men are pining for a feel of home. Anna and Nikolaus stage an impromptu recital that can be heard over the entire front and grows quiet as he sings and comes out of the German foxhole so all can hear. The Scots strike up their bagpipes and begin singing. Soon, the Germans put decorated pine trees in front of their trenches. The tenor begins his singing to a round of applause from all sides, and to the horror of his superior. Slowly, the mistrust between enemies is broken down in the spirit of the holiday.
A cease-fire is brokered for Christmas Eve and the enemies meet on the battlefield not to fight, but to celebrate the holiday together. Among the Scots is an Anglican priest, Father Palmer (portrayed by Gary Lewis) who leads them all in worship while the German singers entertain and the French provide champagne.
The fallout from what happens is devastating. The Anglican priest who presided over the Christmas worship is sent home, and the unit is disbanded by order of the King. The German soldiers are shipped to fight the Russians on the Prussian front.
I had heard the war stories of truces at the front over Christmas but was never quite able to hash out how that happened. Joyeux Noel shows it quite well as the soldiers comprehend slowly that they are fighting other humans, much to the chagrin of those who have taken the time during training to dehumanize them. They label the enemy “German” and expect to instill hate against the enemy. The soldier is not supposed to think of the person there on the other side; a person who is very much like himself just born in the “wrong” country. There’s one line where one of the Scots reflects on events much the same way and criticizes the leaders who got them into this mess but are far from the battlefield.
Generally, I am not one for foreign films. As a rule, I hate trying to read subtitles as they distract me from watching what’s going on. I did thoroughly enjoy Joyeux Noel, however. Writer and Director Christian Carion took pains to keep the feel as authentic as possible, having the Germans and French speakers in their native tongue with subtitles. The exception is Nikolaus’ singing which is very obviously a lip-synch, but that’s forgivable. I found it interesting to see how the language barrier is broken down as well during this time. I give great credit to Carion for managing to get the performances out of the various actors and extras despite the language barriers during filming.
The actors are good. Most Americans won’t know the names but in a way, that’s better. A film like this with the story being the important point would get lost if one of the leads was portrayed by Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt. The actors from their native lands are a big plus, rather than all of them speaking one language and asking the audience to suspend disbelief as they lay it on with fake accents while speaking English, or whatever language it would have been filmed in.
I found it hard to imagine how they will begin fighting again once it is all over. The audience is drawn in to a point where once hostilities start again, who is there to root for? All of the characters have become likable and I didn’t want anyone to die. Such was the message.
Based on actual events during the first World War, Joyeux Noel is a great film, even for those who don’t normally care for foreign films. It’s got a great message we should all remember as we rush around at Christmastime more worried about ourselves than our fellow man, and thinking that dollar we dropped in the pot is all we have to do in the name of “the Christmas spirit.”
• Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Christian Carion
• Interview with Director Christian Carion