Synopsis: Academy Award®, Golden Globe® and BAFTA nominee for Best Foreign Film, Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) tells the true-life story of the spontaneous Christmas Eve truce declared by Scottish, French and German troops in the trenches of World War I. Enemies leave their weapons behind for one night as they band together in brotherhood and forget about the brutalities of war. Diane Krüger (Troy), Daniel Brühl (Good Bye Lenin!) and Benno Fürmann (The Princess and the Warrior) head a first-rate international cast in a truly powerful, must-see film.
Joyeux Noël 8.25
eyelights: its inspiring story. its message. its humanity.
eyesores: its downbeat ending.
“You don’t have to invade Paris to drop round for a drink.”
I have an aversion to war films. While some people find glory in wartime, I don’t. The notion that we have to kill each other to resolve disagreements is most distasteful to me – even more so since it’s usually the poor and unfortunate who are sent out to die. My aversion is such that I even disapprove of War Museums, paeans to death and destruction, when we could instead have Peace Museums. It says something about a culture that it glorifies war instead of celebrating peace.
Having said that, ‘Joyeux Noël’ is more than just a war movie.
Set in 1914, in the trenches of WWI, it follows a half-dozen characters from the French, Scottish and German camps as their troops desist all hostilities for Christmas. Together they play music, celebrate mass, share food, personal histories, take the time to bury their dead, …etc., and even shelter each other when their artilleries take turns carpeting the battlefield. It’s a tale of humanity at the centre of the most devastating moments in human history, of a light in our collective obscurity.
And it’s based on a true story.
Or, rather, stories: though it’s centred on the factual account of the German Crown Prince sending a tenor to entertain the troops, eliciting a standing ovation from the French, the events depicted in ‘Joyeux Noël’ are actually a composite of many individual documented moments on the Western front on Christmas of 1914. While they were in deadly conflict, and one that would last many years still, these warring tribes found ways to reach out to each other for a short while.
Though not without consequence: When word got out that there had been a temporary ceasefire, in large part due to the soldiers’ letters back home, some recounting the events, others even sending pictures (which made the papers in Great Britain!), the military authorities took action. In some cases, artillery was used to disperse the so-called “contaminated” troops, and, in others, they were abruptly separated and relocated. It was considered a humiliation and a dishonour.
But what a lovely series of (temporary) peace offerings.
Watching this picture, I couldn’t help but wonder if we could find such connecting threads with enemies who embraced different religions. After all, in this situation they were all Christians, at a time when religion was an immutable force in people’s lives. But could we enjoy this sort of peaceful exchange if we didn’t respect each other on a higher level? Could opposing factions relate to one another on a purely human level? Or is war so dehumanizing that it’s impossible?
This lead me to wonder if we could be forced to debase our so-called “human values” to fight on an enemy’s terms just because they don’t respect or share the same values. For instance, in the U.S. there’s a growing rhetoric that authorities should be allowed to torture enemy captives because that’s what they do. And there’s constant talk that the death penalty is an acceptable solution in extreme (and sometimes not-so-extreme) cases, as a form of retribution for wrongdoing.
Isn’t it much more honourable to defend our values at all costs, even to ourselves, irrespective of what our opponents do, just because it’s what we stand for? For example, shouldn’t we avoid killing our enemies because we don’t believe in murder, even though this means letting our enemies live to destroy us another day? Couldn’t we simply take pride in fighting harder to maintain that which we hold dear, even it means an extra burden? Why take the easy (but morally-dubious) route?
Should the price that we pay be the very values that we claim to defend?
If ‘Joyeux Noël’ does anything, it’s to remind us that beyond borders, physical or otherwise, we are more the same than we are different: We have similar hopes and dreams, fears and pains, and all struggle to make it through each day. If Christmas can bring peace to battlefields long enough for avowed enemies to befriend one another, to touch each other’s humanity, then perhaps we can expect better from ourselves. And perhaps there’s hope we’ll stop fighting someday.
Joyeux Noël, everyone.
Date of viewing: November 24, 2016