Review: Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas) (2005)

The Thinker by Rodin

It seems only non-Christians are allowed to escape the holiday season without enduring a Christmas movie. In spite of their appeal, this year you may find that you cannot stomach one more viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story. Instead, you might choose one of the more recent and oddball Christmas movies out there: Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas).

The movie tells the strange but true story of combatants during World War One celebrating Christmas together in no man’s land. Much of World War One was fought in no man’s land, an occasionally shifting ribbon of disputed land between France and Germany stretching hundreds of miles. There were no Geneva conventions governing the conduct of war, at least not then. The enemies would lob things fair and foul at each other, from poison gas to tank shells to grenades to billions of bullets. Occasionally when soldiers crossed the trenches they fought the old fashioned way in hand-to-hand combat.

It is hard to imagine a more miserable existence than living moment to moment in trenches along the front. Aside from the frequent mayhem, there was also interminable boredom, bone numbing cold, filth, disease, bad food, wounds that were frequently fatal and sudden and random death. The French, Brits, Americans and Scots were saving the world from the Hun; the Germans were fighting for the glory of the Fatherland. Yet each side prayed to the same God, often using the same Latin words, while trying to annihilate the other side.

A piece of the front inside occupied France is held in all its ugliness by the French 26th Infantry, assisted by the Royal Scot Fusiliers. Facing them across the trenches is Germany’s 93rd Infantry. It’s a thoroughly ugly place, as you might expect, barren of most vegetation, cratered and with plenty of corpses in no man’s land. At least a cold and brutal winter keeps the bodies from decomposing.

Strangely, although prompted by their superiors to kill the enemy, soldiers kill more out of duty than desire. Palmer (Gary Lewis), a Scottish priest, seems to have not gotten the message that the only good German is a dead German. He is Catholic, in the universal sense of the world, and does not like his superior quoting Matthew saying Jesus wants them to slay their enemies.

When the guns and winds are quiet, noise carries over the trenches, including, as Yule approaches, common Christmas carols, spoken in different languages. Things become a bit surreal when the German soldiers deck the trenches with Christmas trees. On a cold Christmas Eve no one seems to have the will to fight. The Scots start off with Christmas tunes to the sound of bagpipes. About the same time, one of the German soldiers (a tenor) and his beautiful wife arrive on the German side, on a special visit to cheer up the troops. The soldier/tenor Nikolaus (Rolando Villazón) and his wife Anna (Diane Kruger) are moved by the sound of bagpipes. They are also moved to defect, feeling the futility of the war and desperately wanting to stay with each other.

An implicit ceasefire becomes more explicit when officers from all sides meet in no man’s land. The Scottish priest Palmer driven by a holy force also finds himself in no man’s land. Officers trade stories, and soon enlisted men are as well, openly fraternizing with each other. Nikolaus and Anna sing for both sides. Father Palmer holds an open air midnight mass. Enemies follow along in Latin.

This is a hard movie to pull off convincingly, but somehow director Christian Carion manages to do it. The front during World War One is rendered in impressive detail and accuracy. The characters, be they French, Scot or German, are convincingly portrayed and come complete with depth and quirks. It’s an odd movie not just in its subject, but in that unless you know English, French and German, you will need subtitles. For a few short hours in a part of the earth right next to hell, a surreal and holy space is opened up. Soldiers discover that their enemies are people largely like them.

This is a Christmas movie that works, in spite of the long odds against it: realistic, heartfelt and deeply moving, both before and after the pivotal scenes begin. It’s a hard movie to watch twice because it is so gripping and affecting, but worth the journey of the human soul to watch once. Keep a box of tissues handy.

3.4 points on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★½ 

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