Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) (France/Germany/United Kingdom/Belgium/Romania, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

December 1914. World War I is not even five months old, and already the high spirits with which it started are eroding. Generals and leaders still voice the opinion that it's going to be a short war, but the men in the trenches doubt this. Yet, following days of bloodshed and in advance of a brutal struggle of attrition that will lead to millions of deaths, there is a brief respite when all truly is quiet on the Western Front. For Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in 1914, enemies ceased their hostilities and acted toward each other as comrades trapped in the midst of the ultimate, tragic absurdity. This story, based on true events, is what Joyeux Noel relates.

When it comes to war films, World War I is underrepresented. There are some very good movies out there - The Grand Illusion, Paths of Glory, All Quiet on the Western Front, and A Very Long Engagement leap to mind - but the list is short when compared to the library of titles devoted to World War II. The reason may have something to do with the motivations of the struggle. While many considered the second world war to be a moral crusade, the causes of the 1914-1918 conflict were less noble, fueled as they were by nationalism, stubbornness, and a tangled web of alliances. The Kaiser wasn't the only culprit.

World War I was fought using tactics of the 19th century and weapons of the 20th. France's major assault was halted when its troops were mowed down by machine guns. Germany's main offensive bogged down in Belgium when the army became overextended and the British joined the fray. Trenches were built and troops dug in. What was initially expected to be a short and jaunty war turned into a long, horrific struggle in which the price of advancing one hundred feet was measured in hundreds of thousands of lives.

On Christmas Eve of 1914, caroling in the French, German, and Scottish trenches led to a sense of mutual understanding and a temporary truce that lasted through the next day. The dirty, disheveled men emerged into No Man's Land to exchange small gifts - cigarettes for chocolates or champagne - and share pictures of their wives and children. They buried their dead and played soccer. On any day in any city, the activities would have been considered normal. In the midst of a battlefield, they were surreal. That's the mood director Christian Carion wanted to capture, and he does so effectively. For Joyeux Noel, he has created a number of fictionalized characters, but the historical events in which their stories unfold are accurately portrayed.

Before the war, Anna Sorensen (Diane Kruger, the Face That Launched 1000 Ships in Troy and Nicolas Cage's sidekick in National Treasure) and Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Furmann) were lovers. Now, he's a member of the German army and she is visiting with a day pass to entertain the troops. Sprink's commanding officer, Horstmayer (Daniel Bruhl, Good Bye Lenin!), is against the idea of her being there - until he hears her sing. Meanwhile, in the French trenches, Audebert (Guillaume Canet, Love Me if You Dare) worries about his wife. Pregnant and trapped behind enemy lines, her fate is unknown. In the Scottish trenches, Palmer (Gary Lewis, the father in Billy Elliot), an Anglican priest, tries to divine God's will for him in the midst of so much suffering and carnage. Once the truce occurs, these individuals meet between the trenches and discover that war need not leech away all humanity.

Carion's first goal is to exploit the absurdity of war - how people can be shooting at each other one day, joking around and playing soccer the next, then once again picking up their rifles. In war, it's necessary to think of the enemy as sub-human (this makes killing easier), but Carion goes to great pains to remind us that the only difference between sides are the uniforms. Nationalism brought countries into the clash of World War I, but there is no nationalism in No Man's Land on Christmas Day.

The movie's weakness comes late in the proceedings. The story concludes 20 minutes before the movie ends. The final portion of Joyeux Noel is rambling and long-winded. Ian Richardson shows up as an Anglican bishop whose purpose is to give a sermon that hammers points Carion has previously made in a more eloquent and subtle fashion. Attempts occur to give each little drama a coda, when such things are unnecessary. Ultimately, Joyeux Noel is more about the event than it is about the participants.

The film was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2006, but lost to Tsotsi. Nevertheless, it's impossible to deny the power of the story and the way the themes resonate across the ages. The messages of Joyeux Noel apply not only to World War I, but to wars of all kinds from the dawn of history until today. War is one of the central conundrums of human existence. Carion does not attempt to explain it, but he shows that, under the right circumstances, human beings are capable of overcoming their base instincts and rising to a higher level, if only for a short time. Historically, the Christmas truce of 1914 was a curiosity that had no lasting repercussions. It makes for a fascinating exploration of the human experience.

(Note: The MPAA initially gave Joyeux Noel an R rating for its depictions of battlefield violence, as well as a non-graphic sex-scene in which a nipple is shown. Upon appeal, the R was overturned - a rare instance in which the MPAA has shown good sense - and the movie was accorded a PG-13 rating.)

Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) (France/Germany/United Kingdom/Belgium/Romania, 2005)

Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2006-03-03
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: English subtitled French and German
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1