Home > Reviews > Review: “Joyeux Noël”

Review: “Joyeux Noël”

Directed by: Christian Carion
Produced by: Christophe Rossignon, Benjamin Herrmann
Written by: Christian Carion
Starring: Benno Fürmann, Guillaume Canet, Daniel Brühl, Diane Kruger, Gary Lewis, Alex Ferns
Music by: Philippe Rombi
Year: 2005

I now have another film to add to my list of films that have made me cry

World War II may get the most media adaptations, with many people seemingly to forgetting that World War I actually happened, perhaps because so few of its survivors were actually still alive within the past two decades.

It was a horrific war that ran from the summer of 1914 all the way to the near end of 1918, and, over that three and a half year time span, over 9 million soldiers lost their lives in combat. A combination of new and old, both technologically and strategically, World War I was at the beginning of warfare being redefined for the 20th century and the innovations in warfare it would bring. Poison gas. Flamethrowers. Trenches. Tanks. Machine guns. Airstrikes – how quickly the airplane was made combat-ready!

As one of the first truly global military conflicts in history, it’s a shame, then, that, for some reason or another, the many stories that have yet to be adapted for the screen have still yet gone untold.

Remarkably, one of the most notable films centered on the Great War was not at all about any conflict or special mission. Instead, it is a story of peace in a maelstrom of madness. Joyeux Noel, French for “Merry Christmas,” is the story about a group of soldiers — Scots, French, and Germans — who laid down their arms and joined each other in peace during Christmas, if only for a few days. The truly remarkable thing about this story is that, despite how hokey it may sound to some, it’s all pretty much entirely true.

Based on a True Story

The film follows characters on all three sides: a Jewish lieutenant, a drafted opera singer, and the love of his life on the German side (Daniel Brühl, Benno Fürmann, and Diane Kruger), another lieutenant, a priest serving as a stretcher-bearer, and the soldier from his church who lost his brother in the initial conflict on the Scottish side (Gary Lewis and Steven Robertson), and, on the French side, their lieutenant and Ponchel, a soldier who keeps with him a clock set to go off at 10 o’clock so that he always remembers to take a coffee break at the same time as his mother (Guillaume Canet and Dany Boon).

I first heard about the basis of this film’s story when I was in second grade. I fuzzily remember my teacher recounting this story to us around Christmastime as an example of a true Christmas miracle and how God brought people together from even opposite sides of a conflict (it was a private school) on  “the night Christ was born,” a sentiment echoed in the film, but with a tone that is much more sombre than perhaps my teacher felt necessary to relay to second graders, as the soldiers choose Christmas morning as the time to bury their dead in the no-man’s-land between their trenches.

The film does a fantastic job of humanizing each character, including the Germans who, you must remember, are not necessarily the same Germans who would go on to fight as Nazis under Hitler’s reign a couple decades later. In fact, their role in the film is more substantial than the others, and the film even ends on them with a touching moment of camaraderie not between them and their country, but between them and their fellow soldiers on the opposing side. And yet it does not pretend that everyone was suddenly alright with each other, either.

These forces were at a stalemate, and the truce was uneasy, to say the least. The Scottish soldier who lost his brother in the conflict that led to this stalemate is understandably aloof and spiteful about the situation, and the film is careful not to vilify him for his feelings — feelings that were similarly felt across the nations as their governments attempted to suppress these reports, punish those involved, and discourage any further outbreaks of peace in the coming years. Unlike the soldier, however, the film is less kind to those who opposed the truce and yet were not there to experience it. What do they know, after all, of sacrifice?

Each of the actors are pretty much great in their roles, though I admit, when a film is partially in a foreign language (or, as with this film, two foreign languages and an often hard to comprehend foreign accent) it is hard to gauge whether their acting is truly “a great performance.” I had no issues, however, and Fürmann and Kruger as the two opera singers, Nikolaus and Anna, stand out in my mind as being particularly solid in their roles, even perfectly lip syncing to the gorgeous voices of Rolando Villazón and Natalie Dessay. The scene where he comes back from war with an unpracticed voice and they both sing for the Crown Prince Wilhelm is fantastic, cementing just how much in love these two are with each other and making their decision to come to the trenches together to sing for the real soldiers during Christmas Eve all the more meaningful.

And when you come to that scene, a catalyst for the truce, it is a truly remarkable and moving one. This is where the film joined that list of mine, and where the film really becomes truly remarkable. It will make you believe that these events not only could happen, but did happen, which is important because, aside from the characters, these events truly did happen, and were not even contained to this one place or even time, as coming years brought more secret truces and more discouragement from all sides.

The thing that gets me about this story is just how much it completely destroyed my concept of what warfare was about, not just with this movie’s recounting of it, but even as far back as when I had heard about it as a second grader. I had always thought of war as being a conflict between good and evil, but the story helps illustrate how, while ideals and beliefs may be good and evil, the soldiers that fight in these battles are not necessarily so black and white. I grew up in such an environment where war was seen as a tool, an instrument for good. Perhaps it’s perfect, then, that the film opens up with a montage of children from their respective countries declaring their love of their homeland and sworn opposition to its enemies. Again, what do they know of what they are saying?

I want to step very carefully, as I do not want to oversimplify any past, present, or future conflicts, but while modern wars seem to be mostly about humanity’s differences in these ideals and World War I had a great deal to do with nations’ power struggles, this story, nonetheless, makes you think about the person you are fighting against.

The film takes away the anonymity of the often faceless, symbol-bearing, and/or iconic singular enemy we see in most war films and shows us how the soldiers discover that they may not be all that different from one another. Some have wives, girlfriends, and children back home, some they haven’t even yet met. They each recall certain locations that they have both visited at one point in their past and hope that, once the conflict is over (and whoever wins), they are able to meet up again not as combatants but potential friends.

Joyeux Noel is not just a great Christmastime movie, but is also a truly remarkable, wonderful film that I would encourage everyone to see at any time of the year. I don’t know if it will shake you as it did me, but I think it will. Most of all, though, I think it should.

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4.5 / 5

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  1. January 8, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    Excellent share!

  1. December 2, 2012 at 12:30 am

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