“No, you’re just not living the same war as me”
Back in 1914, war wasn’t fought through technology and computers, missiles being sent to destroy lives as though a video game victory—no, it was battled in the trenches, feet away from the enemy, watching for the glimpse of an eye to shoot. Military leaders and propaganda brainwash young men into vilifying those on opposite sides, turning them to monsters without souls, without compassion, without humanity. But that’s an over simplification; just as you have a wife, children, and family back home, so does the private on the other side of a dead-ridled ‘no man’s land’, as scared or more to die and leave them behind. So, after a day of firefight, deaths, and a lack of advancement on the part of the French, flanked by a regime of Scots, Christmas looms above three Catholic contingents, making each front wonder if the other would dare use a holy day for disguise or ambush. Writer/director Christian Carion takes the premise of Joyeux Noël [Merry Christmas] and runs with it—perhaps falling into instances of over-dramatization and easy coincidences—showing how alike we all are, no matter what flag we bleed for.
Beginning with a quick prologue in England and Germany, we watch as two sides prepare for war. As an anxious young Scot barges into Gary Lewis’s Palmer’s parish to collect his brother Jonathan (Steven Robertson) with the news that something is finally happening in their lifetime worth doing, two German theatre performers—Diane Kruger’s Anna Sörensen and Benno Fürmann’s Nikolaus Sprink—watch their packed house show get interrupted by the military declaring war has commenced. Cut to the French lines with Lieutenant Audebert (Guillaume Canet), battling with being in the dark as to whether his wife survived the birth of their child as well as its gender if all went well, readying to invade the German line he has been tasked to conquer. Sick from nerves, he quickly goes from hunched over in the trench to rallying his men and leading them across, smack dab into machinegun fire. All involved are simply flesh and bone in the way of an objective, delineated by the colors of their uniforms and headgear, one an anonymous ally and the other adversary.
Here are three groups of men who have fought and survived amongst each other through hell. They each have a responsibility for themselves, their brothers, and their country, knowing full well what is at stake and that their own lives are worth the price of victory. So, when you see Audebert’s father, who is also his commanding officer, sneaking into his quarters for a stern chastising at the hands of the slight defeat, talk about the opportunity for his son to transfer to a ‘safer’ post as head of Calvary, you understand the lieutenant’s anger. He has bled and watched men in his steed die in his arms—he is as much a part of them as they are he, taking the responsibility of the job to heart and not a tenuous bond as his father, safe at home moving chess pieces around a board. It’s a scene that crosses languages and borders as we also watch Fürmann’s tenor-turned-private refuse to abandon his men at a time of need, realizing that singing for the fat German suits in an occupied French residence, basking in wine and gourmet cooking, meant nothing when those actually fighting the fight sit cold and wet in silence.
There is a level of war people take for granted as they read the news or debate politics back home. Every freedom allotted to them has been earned by those who died for their preservation. But while some get caught up into the good and bad of things, they forget how men on all sides are fighting for a country and a way of life, following orders to annihilate the beast infringing on their right to live. It’s the sound of a bagpipe, resonating through the darkness of a Christmas Eve spent in fear of bloodshed, that gives these trained killers a beat to think about what makes them human, not soldiers. It is with music, an intrinsic mode of communication and emotion, that enemies unite under God and fellowship, creating an atmosphere of understanding where only pain and vitriol resided hours before. One will watch Joyeux Noël and see how alike we all are, how our customs differ only slightly and our languages are all built on a Latin base. If men who have just finished blindly firing at each other, not thinking about the widows or orphans each bullet left behind, can put differences aside, why can’t generals do the same? It’s a question for another film to answer, or maybe history and our futures to discover, but for these men, money and land became meaningless in the face of holiday and hope.
Carion masterfully weaves between three languages and motivating settings, cross-cutting from Scots to French to Germans as the characters he follows collide on the fateful battlefield at the story’s center. The battle scenes are close-up and authentic as dirt flies, smoke lingers, and blood spills; the emotions are wrought on each face as fear drives them to charge, anger forces them to pull triggers, and longing keeps them vigilant to hopefully find their way home. Canet is brilliant as Audebert, a man conflicted with his duties to family and those to his men, constantly second-guessing his choices, yet always making the correct one; Daniel Brühl becomes the perfect embodiment of hindsight contradiction for viewers, portraying German leader Horstmayer as a hard man of rules with a past that allows his thaw and understanding despite the horrific face we continue to put on Germany for their role in not only this World War, but especially the one after; and Lewis becomes one of my favorite war-time characters, a priest discovering the true meaning of God and his love of all his creatures, following him through his compassion and culminating into a final scene, equal parts devastating and emboldening, showing one more reason to forsake the church.
Joyeux Noël is an ensemble and besides the aforementioned standouts for each nationality, there are many others that need mention. Robertson resonates as the hardened boy turned man through war, a jaded sense of duty replacing the idealism that got him into the war to begin with; Kruger and Fürmann show how love can conquer all and mend any length of time spent from each other with a singular second, proving how the hours for lovers do last longer than those for everyone else; and Dany Boon’s Ponchel serves as the ever-humbled, always giving, kindhearted soul we aspire to be. Boon plays his right-hand man of Canet with a simpleton’s sense of innocence and optimism, constantly putting himself at risk for those he serves, whether it be his lieutenant, his cat, or his mother back home—in effect only a couple miles from his current post. He is the heart of the film and also the cost of what transpired in the days surrounding Christmas, 1914. It may have been a hard day to swallow for the upper brass, it might have softened the troops from their steely-eyed determination, and it might have gotten each man involved a subsequent posting more likely to end in their death, but, above all else, it showed what it means to live for those around you, both at your side and across borders.
Joyeux Noël 8/10 | ★ ★ ★