The film Joyeux Noël recounts a situation, amidst the slaughter of trench warfare in World War I, that probably didn’t occur exactly as depicted, but that apparently did, in fact, happen. On Christmas Eve in 1914, there were pockets of detente between Scottish, French, and German soldiers. In the film, we see them laying down arms to share whiskey and song in the blasted no-mans land between the lines.
But before this moment of peace can occur, there must be battle. We meet soldiers from all three sides, who speak in their native tongues (the French and German are subtitled). Though this at first seems a conceit, it turns out to be the whole point.
Sprink, played by sad faced Benno Furmann, is a great German tenor, now a soldier, his gift unremarked amidst the shivering bodies of freezing, terrified Germans. Among the Scotts are two brothers who, according to war movie tropes, will be tested by death and vengeance. On the French side is Lieutenant Audebert (Guillaume Canet), an intelligent man struggling for bravery. The fighting is staged without any of the virtuosic vigor of Saving Private Ryan – but who among us isn’t tired of seeing war served up as entertainment?
Events are set in motion by Anna Sorensen (Diane Kruger), a Danish opera singer who is also Sprink’s wife. The Crown Prince is a fan of the couple’s work; Anna manages to get his signature on a one-night pass, for her and Sprink, to perform a private concert. Afterwards, Sprink insists on returning to the front lines to sing for the men; Anna insists on accompanying him.
The Scotts, the French, and the Germans share a similar heritage and the same name for God. When the Germans line the top of their trench with Christmas trees, Sprink sings "Silent Night," and steps into the surreal no-man’s-land. The Scots accompany him on bagpipe. Eventually, gingerly, men from all three armies share a mass given by a Scottish stretcher bearer who is also a parish priest. His sermon about brotherly love is contrasted with a didactic scene in which a different priest uses the Bible to justify the war.
Joyeux Noël is more sentimental than A Midnight Clear , a film that covers similar ground. But that’s not a bad thing. Noël was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2005; audiences seem to need it. We all know what usually happens to the lamb when the lion lies down with him. But it’s no accident that the writer/director, Christian Carion, has an artist be the first one to enter no-man’s-land. If the singer/soldier, no braver than the rest, had simply walked across the line, he would have been shot. But the first thing to cross was not his foot, but his voice. A film like this is the song.
Joyeux Noël is playing at the Buskirk-Chumley theater Saturday, November 25th, at 8:15 pm. This and other theater, music, and movie reviews can be read, listened to, or podcast at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.