So...this is a difficult movie review to write, but I really want to write it. My husband and I watched Joyeux Noel last night. We had seen it before, I think around Christmastime last year. This isn't a Christmas movie in the tradition of It's a Wonderful Life. No, it is a war movie about what was certainly the most sane moment in what may have been the most horrible of wars. If you have never heard of the Christmas Truce of 1914 on the Western Front of World War I, then you should definitely read up on it or watch this film. It is a story of what can happen when men stop treating one another like the enemy and start to see their common humanity. I am going to try to stay away from politics in this post, though Lord knows it is easy enough to go there when you are talking about a war movie. But I think there are serious enough differences between World War I and the war(s) that we are in now to make it difficult to relate this film to our current situation. That said, there are definitely still lessons to be learned from this film. Now, on to my "review."
First off, this is a brilliantly filmed movie. The colors, the framing of the scenes, the acting and the directing are all excellent. My only complaint on the aesthetic side was that dubbing of voices for the two actors who play opera singers. While I hate it when the real actor doesn't sing anyway, I especially hate it when the dubbing is poor. The voices of the singers were beautiful, but I got distracted by the off-time dubbing. This was especially bad because the power of music to unite people in the midst of war was an important element to the film.
Even with the poor dubbing, however, I give this film a strong recommendation. It is not an easy film to watch, but it is also not a typical war movie. I don't like war movies because they so often glorify the violence. Even World War II movies, in which I strongly identify with the moral right of the Allies, are difficult for me to watch. Even if our side was in the right and their's was in the wrong, the soldiers on both sides were people. They were men with wives and children and mothers and homes. Men who may not have believed in what their country was fighting for but who wanted to protect the people they loved. It is easy to take the moral high road when we talk about war between governments but hard to do so when we bring it down to the level of individual soldiers.
This film does just that. It takes the viewer to a specific place on the Front, to three units of soldiers, to German men, Scottish men, and French men, who have families that they miss, children they have not seen, and brothers who have died fighting in an ugly war. It begins as most war movies do, with a bloody scene of Scots and Frenchmen in a failed attempt to take a few hundred yards of ground by entering the recently shelled German trenches and pushing the enemy back. It was just before Christmas. People elsewhere were lighting trees, singing carols, wrapping gifts, and preparing feasts while these men were shooting machine guns and fighting a pointless war to preserve their "freedom."
I won't give a full summary of the plot, but as things unfold, an opera singer who is enlisted in the German army manages to get back to the trenches from a concert for his superiors and to bring along his opera singer girlfriend. In the calm of Christmas Eve, he begins to sing carols in response to a Scottish priest's bagpipes from the opposing trenches. Slowly, the singer and piper emerge from the trenches to face one another, the enlisted men begin crawling out of their holes to witness the miracle, and the befuddled lieutenants hold a meeting in the middle of no man's land and decide on a Christmas Eve truce.
The ensuing story is sad and humorous and profoundly moving. The men begin connecting, showing pictures of wives and girlfriends, sharing chocolate and liquor, realizing that they live on the same street that another stayed for his honeymoon. These men are Europeans, and they share so much good history. They have traveled in one another's countries. They know each other's people intimately enough to make jokes about their nationalities. The story plays to the funny stereotypes of each group, the rowdiness of the Scots, the snootiness of the French, and the seriousness of the Germans.
As the men crack jokes about one another and share stories, the ridiculousness of the war becomes clear. The truce extends for several days, and at one point the men play football (European style). This most light-hearted of scenes was disturbing to me. I recognized the scene, Europeans heckling and fighting a battle of serious proportions on the playing field. But this time it was in no man's land. It seems so ridiculous that the argument could have been settled by a football match. I know that is not true. I know that a lot of things led up to this war. But it makes me wonder what could have been done to prevent it. By the end of the film, the director makes it clear that the leaders of the war had to do some serious work of propaganda to continue convincing these people to kill one another.
Why did this truce come about so easily? What made this war seem pointless? I think the film shows three important elements that could have easily united these men. The first is music (or art). The truce begins with the sharing of music, and the opera singers play a significant role in uniting the men. The second is the presence of the feminine. As soon as Anna, the female singer, shows up in the trenches, the men begin thinking about things other than war. They talk of their wives and mothers and of the comforts of home. When the men enter no man's land and begin sharing, a significant portion of the conversation involves these things, the sharing of photos of wives and children, talk of home and the places they love. Anna sees the pointlessness of all of the lost lives, the widowed women and fatherless children. She stands as a voice of reason against the leaders of the army, whom we occasionally see feasting and partying, while remaining in ignorance of the mess in the trenches.
The final and most pronounced element that unites the men is a shared faith. One of the main characters in the film is a Scottish priest who goes to war to be with the young men of his parish. On the first night of the truce, he holds a mass which the majority of the men attend. This is the most powerful scene of the film. In the midst of the frozen, snowy battlefield where the dead still lie unburied, men who had been killing one another only a day before unite in a common language, the Latin Mass. "The Lord be with you. And also with you." With artillery shells going off in the background, these men unite under a God who loves them all. The ridiculousness of their fighting one another, believing God is on their side only, is revealed. As the priest later tells his lieutenant, “Tonight, those boys were drawn to the altar like to a fire in winter. Even those who weren’t devout came to warm themselves. Maybe to be together. Maybe just to forget the war.” Even the German lieutenant, who is Jewish, says that he will never forget that night.
But the portrayal of Christianity is not all positive. How can it be when the war was fought by people on all sides who claimed to be Christians and assumed God was on their side? In the end of the film, the priest is accused by his bishop of leading the boys astray. He is dismissed from the army and sent home. But before he leaves, he tells his bishop, “I sincerely believe that our Lord Jesus Christ guided me in what was the most important mass of my life." As he leaves the scene, he removes his cross, leaving behind a bishop and his church, while we hear the bishop in the background preaching a gospel of war.
While some would say this confirms the falsity of the Christian message, I did not see it that way at all. The scene of the Christmas Eve mass was so powerful. The message of the Nativity and the Cross has power to unite, even when people seek to distort it for their own means. And the following day, as the men decide to extend the truce and bury their dead, they say, "That makes sense, burying the dead on the day Christ was born. It makes sense." There is some understanding that the holiness of that day is more important than the war that they are supposed to be fighting. As the Scottish priest answered requests from Scots, Frenchmen and Germans to say prayers over their dead, I couldn't help but think of the promise of Christmas, a promise that has continued, that will prevail, despite all of our attempts to undermine it. A promise of "peace on earth and goodwill to men on whom his favor rests." Who are those on whom his favor rests? The Christmas Truce of 1914 made it clear that they are our brothers and sisters, those with whom we share a common humanity. Far be it from us to assume that some are more worthy than others.
And lest you think the makers of this film are total pacifists who think that all war is unnecessary and all people are inherently good, watch the end of the film and tell me what you think. You may not want to add this to your feel-good, happy, fuzzy Christmas movie collection, but I think I may make it part of my regular Advent viewing. It is a great reminder of the need for a Prince of Peace and of the power of hope and love and joy in the midst of suffering. Go watch it. Let me know what you think.