Joyeux Noël (12a)
Joyeux Noël is a great Christmas film and is likely to be with us in the season’s TV schedules for many years to come. Three regiments of troops, Germans, French and Scottish are dug in just a few yards from each other along the Western Front on Christmas Eve 1914. Inspired by the bagpipes of the Scots and the tannenbaumen and rich tenor voice of a German private, Nickolas Sprink, the troops’ respective officers agree to a Christmas truce.
The writer/director Christian Caron researched the period extensively and though the characters are fictitious, the story is based on real events. The truces along the Western Front did happen but their context was probably more political and pacifist than festive, and they lasted much longer than the Christmas season before good order and the killing could be restored. Carion found evidence that fraternisation continued as late as 1916. The Great War has of course been the subject of many films, but Carion has found a way of allowing us to look once again at the war’s early stages and re-imagine them. This is done in modest, simple ways. The recently dug trenches are relatively ordered and clean. The officers’ uniforms are pressed and bright and the countryside is still a pastoral one of barns, farms and country churches. There is a touching modesty and innocence too in the central performances of Daniel Brühl, Guillaume Canet and Gary Lewis, as the German, French and Scottish officers.
What first attracted Carion to the idea of making the film was that fraternisation effectively destroyed the spirit of war. Unlike a mutiny, whose target is the conditions in which you are forced to fight, fraternisation arguably kills this spirit because it restores the men to their natural state.
To get recruits to shoot to kill is apparently one of the most difficult tasks to be achieved in a soldier’s basic training. Despite the thousands of casual killings and murders that pass for entertainment on TV, human beings instinctively recoil from killing each other. So war always must feel like a kind of insanity, and we must be convinced that there is a moral case for pulling the trigger. In Joyeux Noël, the use of Christianity to drive home this necessary imperial ideology is brilliantly conveyed in a cameo appearance with an Arctic chill by Ian Richardson, as a Bishop. Virulent as his set-piece speech is, it was not a creation of the writer/director but a real speech delivered by a Bishop in Westminster Abbey in 1915.
Absurdly, and on a lighter note, Carion felt he could include this indictment of humanity, and the obscenity of frozen corpses on the battlefield, but deleted the final end of a cat! As you’ll see, Nestor, a guest of the French, or Felix, as he is known to the Germans, fraternises freely, dependent on the daily menu in the respective trenches. But the real cat, on whom Felix/Nestor was based, was discovered with a note attached to his collar to the French written by the Germans, asking how they were enjoying life in the trenches. The note was passed up through the French chain of command, until a judgement of espionage was passed on it and the ‘person’ who conveyed it. In the madness that was the real war, the cat was duly put before a firing squad and shot. Carion left the scene out as he felt people would not believe it.
Christian Carion | France/Germany/UK/Romania | 2005 | 116 minutes | 12a