Only months into World War I and the German advance has ground to a halt in the countryside of France. Front lines are established; trenches are dug, and a battle of movement has become a fierce war mere meters wide along the front. On Christmas Eve an unprecedented event occurs and on that cold winter night enemies meet on the field of battle to exchange drinks, cigarettes and show photos of family and loved ones. Accounts of fraternization with the enemy happen all along the lines and the commanding forces find themselves at a loss with how to deal with a war machine that suddenly has shed its arms and shown its humanity. Joyeux Noel is a war film of a different kind. A film that shows the strength and resilience of the human heart through oppressive times.
Based on real accounts of fraternization, recorded and collected from letters, photos and memoirs of British troops sent back to their loved ones during those first few months of the war [the mail systems of France and Germany were more scrutinizing and less information got through], director Christian Carion’s fictionalized story about the beauty of humanity and its ability to break through despite the most tragic of circumstances is a very powerful movie.
But to think that it was music that started it all again gives great merit to the human spirit to overcome its surroundings. The character of Sprink, a German tenor conscripted into the German army, is based on a real life tenor who visited the front lines to provide a moral boost for his country’s fighting men. The realization that ‘Stille Nacht’ was the same song as ‘Douce Nuit’ and ‘Silent Night’ created a connection between the enemy forces. Carion liked the idea that art could stop war and it also further emphasizes that connection within the human spirit.
During the film Palmer, an Anglican priest played by Gary Lewis, reflects on the evening proceedings with his commanding officer. They wonder how the fraternization could have happened and Palmer suggests that it is, ‘maybe to forget about the war’. ‘Maybe,’ replies the officer, ‘But the war won’t forget us’. And the war hasn’t forgotten about them and the three countries are left staggering with all the accounts of fraternization and soon the three forces are removed from the front lines and sent to different fronts in the war. Their fates will be unknown. But the effects of that night will not be forgotten as the German soldiers hum the tune of the Scottish hymn as their train pulls away to the Prussian fight where they will fight the Russians.
And there were some key scenes in Carion’s film which were showing efforts to demonize the enemy to the point that it bears no resemblance to human at all. And it is a horrible thing to witness on screen that you cannot bear to think that such a thing happened or is happening. Carion bookmarks his film with the indoctrination of French, Scottish and German school children at the beginning of his film, reciting poems of war and hate, then with the hate-breeding sermon from the Anglican priest to the young soldiers replacing the Scottish troop near the end of the film. The sermon was real and recited exactly as it was preached during the war, with the exclusion of only a single line. Because I am a man of faith that last scene hurts all the more so, because we believe that the church should be preaching messages of love and tolerance, not hate breeding.
So it is important to remember that beneath the armored shell of a war machine their still beats a human heart. Given the chance, that heart shows itself and compassion is shared. Other times that heart has been turned black with such hatred and it spits out at anyone that comes near. I felt it was very important to ask Seville Pictures if I could review this disc because it was being released at a very appropriate moment in our history, as was the film last year, what with the current states of geo-political affairs being what they are in this world. Remembrance Day had just passed and the Christmas holidays are fast approaching. So many countries have men and women fighting battles for them around the world and I believe we need to be reminded that our war machines have a beating heart. And though wars are fueled by hatred and greed and misunderstanding that hope still exists; that humanity can break clear of that shell of darkness. Carion's film is hauntingly beautiful and the message is just as important and profound today as it was those days in No Man's Land and the days following in it's aftermath.
Actors: Diane Kruger, Benno Fürmann, Guillaume Canet, Dany Boon, Gary Lewis,
Director: Christian Carion
Format: AC-3, Color, Dolby, Dubbed, Subtitled, Widescreen, NTSC
Language: French, German and English version and French dubbed version
Region: Region 1
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
DVD Release Date: November 14, 2006
Run Time: 116 minutes
Commentary by: Writer/Director Christian Carion
Interview with Writer/Director Christian Carion
Making of Joyeux Noel
Making of the Music