"Joyeux Noel" is a cinematic fable that recounts a real occurrence on Christmas Eve in 1914. All along the Western Front, spontaneous but unsanctioned truces broke out among the British and French soldiers and the Germans who were fighting WWI. This wasn't anything negotiated at the peace tables or an order handed down from the commanders. It was simply small groups of soldiers here and there who decided that on the eve of the day Christians celebrate Christ's birth, they would not fight. Instead, they left their trenches, crossed the barbed wire, and met in No Man's Land to socialize, shake hands, and remember the things they have in common.
Relatively new director Christian Carion wastes no time establishing an anti-war theme. The film begins with English school children reciting ethnocentric (even genocidal) poems about the Germans, and the same with the French and German children, who were all being taught these rhymes in the name of patriotism.
Without a patriotic and nationalistic fervor, who would fight? That's hinted at in the next scene as a young Scot who's painting religious icons is interrupted by a brother who's excited about the war and a chance to serve his country. Sure, the brothers will go together, but you can sense that one is more reluctant, and you can tell from the priest's face that he's horrified by the brother's pro-war attitude.
Even on the front, there are anti-war elements. The French commander is far from a blood-and-guts type. He's more worried about his wife back home who's living under German occupation than he is about his men. And though his men don't see him do it, the thought of the battles and carnage to come is enough to make him puke. The symbolism of the gesture is obvious. He has no stomach for war. In fact, none of the soldiers we're introduced to seem pugilistic by nature. These are ordinary guys who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, circumstances as surreal as the No Man's Land in between their entrenchments, where the dead lay frozen with surprised expressions on their faces. The film emphasizes that these are not soldiers at all. They're men of different occupations, men with girlfriends and wives, men with children and family responsibilities.
WWI was all about mustard gas, bayonets, and bitter trench warfare where soldiers fought the enemy at close range, experiencing horrors first-hand that would haunt them the rest of their lives, though the flag-waving public went happily about their own business. As WWI poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote in the poem, "Does It Matter?",
Do they matter?--those dreams from the pit? . . .
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won't say that you're mad;
For they'll know you've fought for your country
And no one will worry a bit.
Carion wrote the screenplay himself, basing it on stories from this night in WWI that he cobbled together. The catalyst for the truce in "Joyeux Noel" is music, and fittingly it's the outnumbered Germans, who in this film are flanked by a Scottish regiment and a French one, who initiate the celebration. Make that one German.
An opera singer named Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann) is called away briefly by his wife/lover, opera singer Anna Sorenson (Diane Kruger), who used her celebrity to help them both be able to spend Christmas together. Instead of finding a room, they instead go to the front. And one song is enough to make others chime in, with vocals and even bagpipes. It's music, and the sight of Christmas trees set atop the German trenches, that set things in motion.
In terms of plot, there's really not much to say. In a way, this film feels more like one of Sassoon's poems than it does a story. We get a feel for the men's emotions and situation, but everything is basically a set-up for the lyrical moment that comes during the cease-fire, which is the release and approval we feel when the men defy orders and patriotic conventions and respond to each other on the basic level of humanity. In that respect, "Joyeux Noel" is a haunting parable, and a message of hope that one day the people in power will react as these humble soldiers did, with the blessings of Lieutenant Audebert and his counterparts from Scotland (Alex Ferms) and Germany (Daniel Brühl).
For a standard disc, the picture is pretty decent. Mastered in High Definition and presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, "Joyeux Noel" still has a slight graininess in the outdoor sequences, with greater detail and color saturation in the indoor scenes. Overall, though, I have no complaints, especially for a standard disc.
Same with the audio, which is available in English, German, and French Dolby Digital 5.1, with English, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles. When the opera singers do their thing, you get a sense of how pure the sound is, how free of distortion the disc is.
There's an interview with Carion, as well as a full-length commentary, both of which are average to slightly above-average. There's not as much about the reasons behind his decisions as there is a description of what he did, but there's still enough to make listening worthwhile.
Siegfried Sassoon, perhaps the greatest of the WWI poets, captured the tone and sentiments of a great many men who fought willingly but grudgingly, thinking it all insane. And "Joyeux Noel" celebrates one brief night of sanity and humanity in the midst of a war that seemed so cruel and senseless. After the historic, impromptu armistice, the German opera singer who started it all says, "To die tomorrow is even more absurd than yesterday." Watch it on Christmas Eve as an alternative to the lighter Christmas classics, and see if it doesn't affect you in a powerful way.