Joyeux Noël (aka Merry Christmas) (review)

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A Terrible Peace

If irony wasn’t actually invented in the 20th century, perhaps it was invented for the 20th century, which started out with an unsinkable ship that promptly sank and moved immediately into a war to end all wars that everyone loved so much they said, What the hell, let’s make a sequel. And in the opening months of that first Great War, a most extraordinary — and most ironic — event occurred: On December 24, 1914, French and British soldiers ventured forth out of their trenches, German soldiers clambered out of theirs, and they all met in the middle to celebrate the holiday. And then, after this brief and spontaneous Christmas truce, they went back to their trenches to face the prospect of having to kill their new friends.

That really happened — it wasn’t the fevered dream of some grunt going mad in the trenches, and it wasn’t invented for a movie. And Joyeux Noël dramatizes this bizarre moment in time with a straightforward aplomb that is devastating, that makes you wish you could laugh at the insanity and pointlessness of it but refuses all emotional response except overwhelming rage and grief.

Writer/director Christian Carion combines real historical people and invented ones, real historical incidents and made-up ones, in Noël, which was an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film earlier this year (the film is actually in French, German, and English). The character of Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann: The Order) is one based in fact: a celebrated German tenor, and a soldier himself on leave to entertain generals for the holiday, he sneaks off to the trenches of his fellow grunts to sing for them instead. And that’s how it all begins here. The trenches are so close, separated by mere yards, that the enemies can hear one another — the Germans use a French alarm clock that goes off every morning at 10am as a marker in time — and so of course the French can hear Sprink’s astonishing voice (supplied by renowned Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón). And so can the Scottish regiment in the British trench, whose piper joins in with a holiday song of his own. (If the mournful wail of the bagpipes never gave you chills before, they might now.) It’s tentative, at first, the climbing up into no-man’s-land — no one wants to get shot, naturally, but hardly any one seems to inclined to shoot, either — and so soon the French lieutenant, Audebert (Guillaume Canet: Love Me If You Dare, The Beach) is sharing a drink with his German counterpart, Horstmayer (Daniel Brühl: Ladies in Lavender); the Anglican priest with the Scots, Palmer (Gary Lewis: Gangs of New York, Billy Elliot), is celebrating midnight Mass for everyone, and Sprink’s ladylove and musical partner, Anna Sörensen (Diane Kruger: National Treasure, Wicker Park; singing voice supplied by famous French soprano Natalie Dessay), who snuck out to the trenches with him, is singing “Ave Maria” and sending shivers up and down everyone’s spines, not just with her beautiful voice but in the shock of what it all represents: the sudden recognition of their own shared humanity.

Carion uses music and religion as the common language of these diverse people, to underscore the futility of these particular men fighting one another when they have no beef between them and actually are much alike… And from that springs the real horror of Joyeux Noël, as these men come to understand how they have been brainwashed, how they have had to be brainwashed in order to hate an “enemy” that is just like them, in order to fight and kill an “enemy” who no more wants to fight and kill them, except that the “enemy” has been brainwashed, too. These men overcame their programming, saw through the propaganda to rehumanize those who had been demonized, and in the process, they ruined themselves as soldiers.

In a decent world, this would be a good thing, but the commanding officers on both sides were dismayed, and shipped those involved in the Christmas truce to new postings, afraid — and rightfully so — that they would refuse to kill men they had befriended. Carion gives us a taste of this aftermath, too, the reapplication of propaganda to young recruits with a new vigor, the prosecution of some of those involved in the truce… The horrific war of attrition, millions dead on every side, did not begin until the year after the truce, and the truce was never repeated. One has to wonder whether the war became the terrible nightmare it was because the fat generals were desperate to ensure their grunts would never see the “enemy” as merely other grunts ever again.

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