The Guns of August 1914 mark the start of events that would plunge the planet into its first worldwide war. In the first months following the outbreak of combat, hundreds of thousands of men died in the carnage. On the first eve of Christmas since the beginning of hostilities one small sector of the battlefield, Scots and French soldiers opposite Germans, spontaneously breaks out in peace in the true-event story of “Joyeux Noel.”
I read Stanley Wietraub’s amazing non-fiction book, Silent Night, not long ago. It chronicled that special Christmas Eve, in many spots along the battle lines between Allies and their German foes, when troops on both sides decided that Christ’s birthday was just cause to call a truce, even for just a little while. This spontaneous declaration of peace resonated throughout the high commands, when discovered. But, for those few hours, the average grunt could rest in the peace that, for the first time in months, no one was trying to kill him. Sadly, after the all-too-brief respite, the war would drag on for nearly four more years, leaving millions more dead in its wake.
Writer-director Christian Carion, a newcomer to these shores, shows immense skill and craftsmanship in his remarkable sophomore film that focuses on a very tiny portion of the WWI front where troops, led by three lowly lieutenants – German Horstmeier (Daniel Bruhl), Scotsman Gordon (Alex Ferns) and French officer Audebert (Guillaume Canet) – reach out to each other on this very special night. It’s early enough in the war where the men are amply supplied with the fixings, including beer, wine and (of course, for the French) champagne and cognac, to celebrate the holiday.
A gift from the Kaiser to his troops – 100000 Christmas trees – and the appearance of famous German tenor Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Furmann) and his beautiful Danish partner and lover, Anna Sorensen (Diane Kruger), who serenade both sides in the trenches, proves the catalyst for the much-welcomed truce. At first, the men on both sides enjoy Nikolaus’s melodious voice as he sings “Silent Night” and other Xmas songs familiar on both sides. This leads to all of the combatants leaving their guns behind to break bread and hoist a few with their mortal enemy.
Helmer Carion took on a big task in attempting to bring the true-life magic of the Christmas Truce of 1914 to life and, I’m glad to say, succeeds in a very satisfyingly manner. He musters his cast of hundreds expertly as he focuses on the points of view of the section commanders, the men, a priest turned stretcher-bearer, Nikolaus and the lovely Anna. The latter relationship, with Anna willing to do anything to save and be with Nikolaus, forms a believable love story as Anna uses her and Nikolaus’s fame to be with him, if but briefly. Love soothes the savage breast.
Joyeux Noel” is well cast from top to bottom. The five leads – the three lieutenants, who are only too happy to have peace break out in their tiny section of the front, and singers Nikolaus and Anna who are the fairy story catalyst for the spontaneous celebration – are all fully drawn by the script, by helmer Carion, and by the actors who portray them. There is a palpable sense of honor and compassion given to the officers with each having a bit of back story to help flesh them out. Despite the war, the three find themselves to be true comrades-in-arms.
Nikolaus and Anna are a fairytale couple whose love for the beauty of their music inspires her to go to the highest levels (the German crown prince himself) to free her lover, if for but a day, from the carnage of war for a command performance. Afterward, they spirit themselves to the German Army front lines where Nikolaus serenades his troops with beautifully sung Christmas songs. When the Scottish bagpipers join in, the soldiers from both sides sing along. Nikolaus walks into no-man’s-land risking possible death but, instead, prompts all the troops to leave their weapons behind and greet each other in a moment of peace. Food, drink and a sense of comradeship replace the usual grind of bloody warfare.
The supporting cast is richly populated with credible character actors that contribute to the verisimilitude of “Joyeux Noel.” Gary Lewis, as Anglican priest-turned-battlefield-medic, Palmer, is the constant voice of pacifism and spiritual protection for his flock. Stephan Robertson plays the angst-ridden Scottish fusilier Jonathan, giving a sorrowful performance as a young man who just lost his brother by the hand on the Hun and won’t give into the peace that pervades the night. Dany Boon, as Audebert’s aide Ponchel, is endearing in his loyalty to his commander and his mother, caught behind the German lines. He is the focus of the tragic irony that finishes “Joyeux Noel.”
Techs are top notch with great attention to costuming details, by Alison Forbes-Meyler, that outfit the troops in early WWI uniforms. Production design by Jean-Michel Simonet recreates this tiny corner of the trench warn well. Director of photography Walther Vanden Ende’s lens captures the fraternization between enemies crisply.
If you are not familiar with the true-life events of the real Christmas Truce you might think this is just a bunch of Hollywood-like unbelievable hokum. But, knowing the events of that singularly unique evening puts “Joyeux Noel” as a believable chronicle that makes the futility and horror of World War One hit home. I give it a B+.Laura:
Laura gives "Joyeux Noel" a B.
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