The theme for MovieRob‘s Genre Grandeur series of December 2014 was holiday films, which is a perfect choice for one of the most holiday-dense months of the year. So many excellent reviews were featured during December’s Genre Grandeur. I chose to write about Joyeux Noel (2005, dir. Christian Carion), a film about war, peace, and Christmas. Although Christmas is over and we’re now into the new year, this is still a film well worth watching, particularly if you’re interested in war history.
Part Christmas film, part war film, and part anti-war film, Joyeux Noel (2005, dir. Christian Carion) is a retelling of the famous Christmas Truce of World War One. During the Christmas Truce in this film, the Scottish, French and German troops who were fighting in the trenches on the Western Front called a ceasefire that lasted from Christmas Eve until the morning of Boxing Day. During the Truce, the troops met together in No Man’s Land and spent time with one another before returning to the trenches, their view of the ‘enemy’ forever changed.
The story of the Christmas Truce is probably one of my favourite Christmas stories because it really makes you stop and think in a way that is completely different to other stories around this time of year. I remember learning about the Truce when I was a child and my mind was completely blown that enemies from different sides of the war could call a ceasefire, get together and celebrate Christmas, play soccer together and share drinks, get to know one another, and then begin fighting and killing one another again once the truce was called off. I found this so difficult to reconcile in my mind at the time – the troops continuing to attack the people they had just met and gotten to know.
The story of Joyeux Noel, which translates to ‘Merry Christmas’, is told through the eyes of Scottish Lieutenant Gordon (Alex Ferns), French Lieutenant Audebert (Guillaume Canet), German Lieutenant (who is also Jewish) Horstmayer (Daniel Brühl), a Scottish priest who works as a stretcher-bearer (Gary Lewis), a German tenor opera singer (Benno Fürmann), and his wife, a Danish soprano opera singer (Diane Kruger). Each of these castmembers lends their own unique flavour to the side of the war that they represent, however at times they do seem like caricatures of each nationality. This may potentially be as a result of having so many main characters, however. Diane Kruger is also a fairly random addition, and often when ‘singing’ (vocals by Natalie Dessay), the audio is terribly out of sync with her mouth movements. But overall, I was impressed with the cast of this film.
Joyeux Noel illustrates the conflict of World War One remarkably well. The horrendous trench warfare is shown in a confronting manner, and the conflict is shown equally from all sides – French, Scottish, and German. This causes the viewer to feel a strange sort of solidarity with all of the main characters, even though they’re technically ‘enemies’; all of the characters are experiencing the same difficulties and threats. Equality of man is an important theme around Christmas time, and if anything, the concept of all men being equal is reinforced by this story. If you factored out the military uniforms and political loyalties, these men who are shooting at one another would probably be great friends.
Visually, the film is quite beautiful in a brutal way. There are plenty of tense and dramatic moments that are shot in an erratic manner, causing the viewer to feel on edge or threatened. But the moments that look the best are during the truce itself, where the camera takes in the faces of all the men who are from different parts of the world who seem to find themselves all in the same place, and who you can’t really tell apart from one another. The direct juxtaposition of this sudden calmness with the prior frantic nature of the scenes whilst the troops are fighting is actually quite emotional to see.
At times, however, this film does suffer from the same fate as many Christmas movies – some moments are slightly schmaltzy or overly emotional, and definitely play upon the sentimentality that arises as a result of the film being both a war film and a Christmas film. However, there are grittier moments that do counterbalance this, and it’s not all sunshine and happiness once the Scottish, German and French troops meet in No Man’s Land. Additionally, the fact that the Christmas Truce actually happened is quite a sobering thought that permeates the film, ensuring that, even during the sweeter moments, there is still an undercurrent of reality throughout.
Ultimately, Joyeux Noel is a different type of holiday film. It’s a Christmas film fused with a war film, fused with an anti-war film. It makes you think about how all men (and women) really are all equals in the end, and it reminds you of the sacrifice that many young men made during World War One. Additionally, it is quite well acted and is quite visually impressive. This may be a strange one to recommend watching around Christmas time, but due to the legend that surrounds the Christmas Truce (or Truces, as there were several) of World War One, I would highly suggest giving this a watch around the holiday season.
Watch the trailer here.
Watch this film at Amazon!