or Stop the War, I Want to Get Off…
“Joyeux Noël” (Merry Christmas, 2005) is an especially apt “Christmas in July” movie, ’cause it looks like it might have been shot in July. Certainly not in December! The snow is not wet and breath is not visible. Moreover, no one seems to be cold—well, except for the corpses. And the ground is not frozen and is amenable to shovels. And the grave-digging does not have any effect on the snow around them.
Also, how credible is it for all the Scotsmen and German to be Roman Catholic? (The statistic from the 2001 census was 16% of the Scottish population was Catholic; I doubt that the 1911 one was higher than a quarter).
Since I seem to be frontloading my review with what I had difficulty with, I don’t think that it was a good idea to start the movie with three vignettes in empty classrooms in Scotland, Germany, and France with a schoolboy in each orating invective about the enemy. The extent of hatred and wild propaganda is historically attested, but emphasizing the pervasive hostility drilled into the young makes the fraternization across the trenches on Christmas Eve (and Day) 1914 harder to credit.
Literally unimaginable to the commanders of each of the armies comfortably in the rear, Christmas Eve ceasefires occurred and most everything, including what seems to most preposterous detail in the movie, is based on attested events that happened in 1914-16. The bonus feature interview with writer/director Christian Carion is entirely taken up with these “Did ____ really happen?” to which the answer is “Oui.”
Carion relates that the incidents of Christmas Eve fraternization invariably began with Germans singing “Stille nächt” (Silent Night) and always including co-operation of burying the dead frozen in No Man’s Land.
In the movie, set is Alsace, it is an opera tenor Nikolaus Sprink, (Benno Furmann lip-synching Rolando Villazón none too well ) who sings the archetypal German carol. From across the way, a priest turned medic who also plays bagpipe, Palmer (Gary Lewis), takes up the melody and is joined by three other bagpipers. He then takes the initiative with “Adestes Fidelis” (O Come All Ye Faithful). Soon the champagne is flowing. Sprink’s wife, a Danish soprano (Gary Lewis) sings after the Latin mass.
The only explicitly identified non-Catholic is the front-line German commander (Daniel Bruhl, who reminds me of Omar Sharif ca. “Dr. Zhivago”; the Catalán actor played the Polish violinist in “Ladies in Lavender” looking less robust, and the scrambling dutiful East Berlin son in “Goodbye Lenin”), Lt. Horstmayer, is Jewish. The Scottish lieutenant (Dany Boob) precedes the French one, Lt. Audebert (Guillaume Caret), to the conference that establishes the cease-fire. He is the one with the most backstory, not least that his father is a general.
I expected to resist the message of peace and good will in the midst of war and hatred and the slow start and not especially miserable trench life bolstered my resistance, but the peculiarity of what happened and the development of the combatant officers melted my resistance away. The war continued for another 47 months, but hostilities were suspended briefly by those on the lines: a Christmas miracle of sorts. The movie shows the soldiers who have been in the trenches realize that those a hundred meters or so across the way have more in common with them than civilians or the generals safely in the rear do.
BTW, Carion says that in including a speech that was given by an English bishop (played in the movie by Ian Richardson) he toned it down and relates what he cut from the “God is on our side” sermon.
There is some symmetry in invective-spewing by those who had never been in the trenches at the start and finish of the movie, but I still think the opening triptych is unnecessary and slows the movie down. The bishop’s sermon at the end to fresh troops fits better, because the experience of a priest subordinate to him is central to the movie.
©2009, Stephen O. Murray