dir: Christian Carion
[img_assist|nid=934|title=War bringing people together|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=306]
I would not have thought a war film set during the Great War could bring me to tears. I would not have thought a war film could possess such gentle humour, genuine humanism and have such an uplifting message.
And I was right. This flick hasn’t got ANY of that shit.
Just kidding, it has some of that and more in sheer coruscating abundance.
For all my enjoyment of the film, don’t get all confused and assume it’s the flick of the year. It’s pretty simplistic, sentimental and should have been in desperate search of a better ending. But for all its faults (and unbelievable aspects), it is still a strong film saying something many of us can understand: most soldiers from different countries don’t really like killing each other that much.
They don’t get a lot out of it, and it’s murder on your laundry.
But someone benefits from war, and it’s never the guys at the front. And someone must be ‘inspiring’ these people to go to war, for whatever noble or ignoble reasons.
This is most chillingly asserted at film’s beginning, where we watch three children, one after the other, recite propaganda poems from the era in their respective languages advocating the absolute extermination of their enemy down to the women and children. And why the hell not…
Recalling in fictional form the events of 1914, soldiers at the Western Front from the Prussian (German), French and British (Scottish) sides form a tentative truce on Christmas Eve. They sing carols at first from the safety of their respective trenches, eventually exchange booze and food, pictures of loved ones, and even play a soccer game. Though they needed a better umpire, because the Germans were often offside and never called out on it. Are you fuckin’ blind, ref? Jeez.
A priest holds Mass for all under an improvised cross, believers and heathens alike, feeling it to be the most important Mass of his life. The different sides agree to continue the cease fire in order to clear No Man’s Land betwixt their various trenches and bury their dead. Eventually they’re harbouring the other sides from their own artillery’s shelling. It sounds surreal, but these events actually occurred, just not all at once and not all at the same place.
It all starts from a logistical error on the part of the Prussian Generals. Concerned with morale, they send more Christmas trees to the front than they can deal with. Tannebaums, O Tannenbaums clog up their trenches and make it hard to walk around amidst the rats and filth. When the kilt-wearing Cameronians start singing I’m Dreaming of Home to the accompaniment of bagpipes, the Germans start sticking their trees above the trench wall, and much of the audience fall apart in a flourish of wet hankies.
The Jerries conveniently have an opera singer in their midst, who belts out a version of Silent Night, and his girlfriend sings an Ave Maria that would make your bitter, whingeing grandmother cry black tears as thick as gravy.
The next step seems impossible, crossing that immense divide, but the Scottish priest (an excellent Gary Lewis) is compelled by the example of Christ and his love of, um, all men, and bridges the gap. He sees here an opportunity to save lives and souls.
Soon the commanders of the various trenches tentatively work out that it’s okay if they stop killing each other for a night at least. The German commander (Daniel Bruhl) ironically points out that whilst Christmas means nothing to him, being Jewish, this is still the right thing to do.
The French lieutenant (Guillaume Canet) has up til now seemed ill at ease with the war, what with throwing up before leading an unsuccessful push over the top, and always looking like someone crapped on his morning croissant. We find out it’s not the war per se that’s bugging him, it’s the fate of his pregnant wife behind enemy lines that keeps him up at night chewing his debonair little moustache.
In the German commander at least he finds some strange camaraderie, as well as neighbourly familiarity. The German guy is married to a French girl as well, and has fond memories of the French guy’s Montmarte neighbourhood stomping grounds, and suggests they all hook up again after the Germans have won the war for a cup of tea.
Ah, sweet irony. Inevitably, the war has to go on, but the memory of that achievement, that bridging stays with the men, to their detriment.
You shouldn’t mistake it for pacifism, or a mass mutiny, or cowardice. These men are lead into confusion because having shared booze and broken bread, their blood isn’t up any longer against The Enemy. They have seen The Enemy, and the enemy is just a guy a lot like themselves. Language barrier notwithstanding, cultural differences still recognised, the hollowness of wartime rhetoric and the self-serving propaganda are revealed for what they are: the tools of the powerful to expand their power by other means.
Karl von Clausewitz once wrote that war is politics waged by other means, others have said politics is war waged by other means. Both depend on soldiers who don’t see their enemies as human, as brothers and fellow members of the human race.
To underscore this, towards film’s end, the priest who presides over the Christmas Mass is admonished by his bishop and banished back to the land of Nessie for compromising his men and engaging in ‘high treason’. The bishop then goes on to deliver a sermon to the new troops, exhorting them to wipe out the Germans now, so that they don’t have to do it down the track.
In truth, as in the film, the German and British commands were absolutely horrified that such truces occurred, and took steps to ensure such mutinous behaviour would not happen again. It’s a sad note for such a beautiful moment in human history to end on, even for such a truly fictional representation.
Still, I couldn’t help but listen to the nagging voice in my head that was pointing out the flaws in the film. There are little subplots throughout the movie, in order to make some of the characters look more well-rounded, and some of them work better than others. That’s a diplomatic way of saying that some of them are utterly crap, whilst others are a bit more heartening. The two singers in particular (Diane Kruger and Benno Fuhrmann) are particularly hammy, so hammy that I’m surprised no-one started carving pieces off of their honey-glazed hides in order to feed the troops.
Except for those two, most everyone else and everything else is well-acted and well-realised. I especially enjoyed the performances of the Scottish priest, the German commander, and the French lieutenant’s orderly, perfect in his simple-minded way. I don’t know if any of these characters existed back in 1914, however.
It’s also a fairly sanitised depiction of the horrors of trench warfare. The names Ypres, Verdun and the Somme, amongst others, are hallowed names, emblematic of the horrors of trench warfare and war in general. Whilst displaying the pleasant face of humanism, Joyeux Noel doesn’t really have the chance to show us why the men were moved to such a truce, apart from the fact that ‘war is bad, mkay?’ Which most of us, or many of us, or at least some of us know is true already.
So, is it a great film? I don’t think so. It’s too fictionalised (not that I was expecting a documentary), and goes more for the heart than the head. But the heart is still a good place to aim for. The parallels to present day thinking on war give it currency, and, hell, the fact that it’s Christmas makes it all the more special.
It is a sweet confection, certainly artificial over the more organic alternatives, with a heartfelt message to cut a little of the treacle, and a wonderfully realised production to cap it all off. It’s a healthy antidote to some of the big-budget monstrosities (literally and figuratively) that start to stink up our cinemas around this time of year.
7 times I urge you to take your mother along out of 10
“His name’s not Felix, it’s Nestor.”
“No it’s not, come here, Felix. He’s a French cat.”
“No no, Nestor is German. Nestor!” – international diplomacy on the battlefield, Joyeux Noel.