“Something odd is afoot.”
Joyeux Noel is based on a series of real life-incidents that occurred during WWI on Xmas Eve 1914. According to many sources, on several locations along the front, soldiers from opposing sides put down their arms and mingled. Joyeux Noel takes true incidents that took place and then blends them into a story–focusing on just one tiny area where French, Scottish and German troops are involved in the brutal war from the filth and squalor of their trenches.
The film begins with very brief sketches of exactly how some of the film’s major protagonists found themselves wallowing in the blood and gore of WWI. There are two Scottish brothers who eagerly embraced war–with one brother welcoming volunteering with the phrase, “At last, something’s happening in our lives.” And there’s the German opera singer Sprink (Benno Furmann) who leaves his career and his beautiful lover and singing partner Anna Sorenson (Diane Kruger) in order to enlist.
The worlds the soldiers left behind are soon replaced with the horrors of the trenches. A senseless, suicidal assault led by the French and the Scots on the Germans results in mangled bodies of the dead lying in the snow. Some men die and some men survive. And then it’s Xmas Eve in the trenches, and each side attempts to eek out a meager sense of celebration for a few hours at least. The Germans, led by Horstmayer (Daniel Bruhl) have received a number of Xmas trees, and they attempt to decorate their trench. A spontaneous event takes place, and the three sides declare a truce and mingle.
The film’s strong pacifist message resonates long after the story concludes, and the plot makes it clear that the officers who are later held accountable feel a strong sense of camaraderie with their fellow soldiers–while they feel remote from the higher-ups who issue orders from the comfort of palaces well behind the lines. Naturally, the military hierarchy will not tolerate fraternization between opposing forces–after all it threatens their war and may even lead to humanization of the enemy. And the film does an excellent job of conveying the fact that the Xmas Eve incidents are viewed with horror and are seen as threats to the continuance of hostilities. Soldiers ‘contaminated’ by the event must be isolated, removed and punished.
The film’s subplot romance between the opera singers unfortunately lessens the film’s power. The story here of the spontaneous connections created by the soldiers who are in theory engaged in a battle to the death–but see themselves as fellow victims of tyrannical decisions–is so fantastic it almost seems too hard to believe. The element of the romance spoilt the story and lessened the film’s power by pulling away the focus from the men and the commonality of their experience. Directed by Christian Carion, the film is in French, German and English.