Recently, I had the ultimate pleasure of watching “Joyeux Nöel” [MERRY CHRISTMAS], nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 78th Academy Awards, on cable. Not a lover of war movies at all, I was more than pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this film. This was perhaps because it possessed many, if not all, of the traits that impress me in a movie. It is unusual that I would go as far as to consider viewing the film another time since I find that the theme of war in films is generally one of the most unpleasant.
However, Joyeux Nöel contains enough goodwill and comedy to ease the tension associated with the subject material and to maintain a positive tone throughout the film. I enjoyed the fact that Joyeux Nöel is trilingual. Music, custom, scenery, costumes and the English, French and German languages spoken throughout the film all depict the three respective cultures of the soldiers fighting in the war. In addition, the subtitles are written in British English and this also provides a refreshing treat! Even religion has its place as Father Palmer, the Anglican priest, presides over a service during which music plays a key role in the film with heart warming singing by Nikolaus Sprink and Anna Sorensen. The soldiers sing popular songs of their countries amidst the sound of the bagpipe and harmonica.
The film provides an education in history since it is based on a true story. The director was inspired when he discovered a book entitled “Battles of Flanders and Artois 1914-1918” written by Yves Buffetaut that covers the sequence of events surrounding World War I that broke out in the summer of 1914 and culminated that same Christmas Eve when the war became more deadly and the soldiers decided to call a truce for Christmas.
For a brief moment, the viewer is able to tune out the horrors of war or at least cope. I experienced a great deal of mirth while watching the soldiers leave their rifles in their trenches. Enemies shake each other’s hands; they exchange cigarettes, champagne and chocolate and wish each other “Merry Christmas.” I found myself laughing out loud several times during the film and I was filled with strong feelings of optimism to see the soldiers of the three different nationalities sharing moments of peace and friendship.
On Christmas Day, the officers enjoy coffee together, bury their dead and challenge each other to a football match and even when they shelter each other during artillery barrages on both sides, they are aware that reality is yet to be faced. The soldiers must later face their superiors as they return to their own trenches. When news of the fraternization across lines leaks out, the commanders worry that it could hamper the war effort, and take extreme measures to put a stop to the fragile peace. The troops are replaced because they have been tainted by the experience.
I was shocked when Father Palmer is harshly criticized by his bishop who remonstrates with him quoting the scripture that Jesus “did not come to bring peace but a sword.” The bishop later tells the new recruits that they are in a crusade, a holy war for freedom. Father Palmer removes his cross and rejects the views that are so inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus.
Director Christian Carion stated that “the film has more than a European dimension for me. It has a humanistic dimension. In my opinion, anyone on the planet would be touched by the fraternizing that went on, not just the German, English and French. That’s why I’d like to show the film in a country that is at war.”
If you have not seen this film, I recommend that you do. I for one will be seeing it again as soon as possible.