Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
In the summer of 1914, after over a month of diplomatic meetings and armed mobilizations by all the major powers of Europe following the assassination by Serbian nationalists of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, World War 1 fell upon the continent. A month later, one million men were dead. The early days of the war were, as seems dangerously typical of such conflicts, filled with confidence and cheer. For millions of young men of Europe, the Great War seemed an exciting prospect. The vast railway network would make mobilization a breeze. Whoever could field their army the fastest would take the land and win every battle without even having to fire a shot. The boys would all be home by Christmas.
The trenches on the Western front were filled with men, and water, and disease. Rats and lice had free reign and the whole line stank of open latrines and the rotting corpses of soldiers and animals. The December chill blunted the dampened the smell, at least, though the living did struggle to bundle up and keep hands warm or feet dry. Rubble and artillery rained down from overhead, deafening and bludgeoning the soldiers who huddled up against the makeshift and hastily reinforced walls and tunnels of the trench. It was a miserable place filled with exhausted teenagers far from home and veterans lost in a war they no longer knew how to fight.
That first Christmas of WW1 happened 5 months into the war. Though regiments were replaced a sense of camaraderie between the soldiers on opposite sides of No Man’s Land naturally developed. In the early days the mood was amicable. Prussian soldiers put up a sign reading “Gott mit uns” (God is with us) and the British soldiers replied with one reading “We’ve got mittens too”. Bartering occurred sporadically for goods and news. On Christmas Eve, 1914 however, large-scale gatherings took place in several locations on the Front. Fraternization on a scale that made it very difficult to police and punish. Carols were sung, gifts were exchanged, games and sports were played. Masses were held. The dead were buried.
Sadly, however the Christmas Truce was just a blip in the history of the war. There was still an inexhaustible supply of fresh recruits willing to fight and national coffers full of money left to be spent on supplies and plans. And plenty of animosity and fighting spirit left to go around. Written in the Spring of 1915, Canadian soldier John McCrae’s famous poem “In Flanders Fields” still urged survivors to continue fighting. It would be years still before the war took its toll. Before Passchendaele and the other battles that churned the muddy craters that had once been Belgium into mass graves. Before Verdun. Before the gas. Today we remember WW1 as a pointless war without “bad guys” thanks in part to the contrast with our excellent lionizing and demonizing of WW2. In 1918, when the armistice was finally declared, the tired and wounded soldiers didn’t even muster the energy to celebrate. They just slept and marched home.
Storytelling allows us to dramatize reality in fictionalized retelling. Joyeux Noël (2005) is not a documentary. The film is a fictionalized retelling of a real event where the singing of a German tenor Walter Kirchoff, sent to the front lines to sing Christmas carols for the troops, was met with a standing ovation from the opposing French trenches. It takes the energy of 1918 and our 21st Century sensibilities and projects them back to those two days, now over 100 years ago, and distills everything that is special and worth remembering about the Christmas Truce. It delivers bluntly and relentlessly a single essential truth: the enemy is made up of normal people and once you see them as such, and break bread with them, they can never go back to just being “the enemy”.
The film opens with schoolchildren reciting poems and rhymes naming their enemy (Germany, England) and urging its imminent or inevitable destruction. It’s a brilliant way of setting the stage for the atmosphere of the lead-up to the first world war while ramming home the lesson that regardless of how deep these grudges ran they were nevertheless taught. And like all knowledge it can be overturned in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Afterwards it sets up the three main forces of the film, their notable members, and their commanders in the trenches. The Royal Scottish Fusiliers, the German 93rd Infantry, and the French 26th Infantry.
The principal cast members are like pieces set in a carefully plotted soap opera. A few characters are introduced at the war’s announcement but the rest are only introduced at the trench. Berlin Opera Tenor Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann) and his Danish Fiancée Anna Sørensen (Diane Kruger) are interrupted at their recital by a government announcement that war has been declared. Sprink is sent to the Front as part of the 93rd under the command of Lieutenant Horstmayer (Daniel Brühl). Lieutenant Audebert (Guillaume Canet) vomits before leading his orderly Ponchel (Dany Boon) and his regiment in a charge on the German trench. Two local boys, both Audebert and Ponchel left family behind in occupied France. A young Scottish lad Jonathan (Steven Robertson) loses his brother William in the same offensive after excitedly joining the war at the outset alongside their parish priest Father Palmer (Gary Lewis).
The film’s villains are theatrically evil. The spoiled crown prince (Thomas Schmauser), the disappointed father General Audebert (Bernard le Coq), and the sabre-rattling major (Christopher Fulford) are characters to be mocked and hated. Unlike the principled humble soldiers and their commanders, the villains are detached and ignorant. They have little in common with the men in the trenches whom they consider pawns, Wholly ignorant or disdainful of the conditions to which they’ve been subjecting their subordinates.
After a failed assault on the German trenches with heavy losses on all sides the French and Scottish troops are forced to retreat. Reprimanded by their superiors they are instructed that reinforcements and replacements are unavailable right away and to begin preparations for further assaults. As the December frost falls, the men prepare for makeshift festivities with the various care packages they’ve received and supplies they’ve scrounged up. Bagpipes and whisky for the Scottish, champagne for the French, Christmas trees and chocolate for the Germans. Behind the lines, Anna has managed to negotiate Sprink’s temporary withdrawal from the front line in order to perform a Christmas concert for the crown prince. After the concert, however, Sprink decides to return to the Trench to sing for his comrades.
On Christmas Eve, the Scottish troops launch themselves into a rendition of the film’s theme song “I’m Dreaming of Home” which is followed by “Silent Night” from Sprink. Next, Sprink launches into “Adeste Fideles” which is met with a bagpipe accompaniment by Palmer. Sprink crosses into No-Man’s Land and is soon followed by the 3 commanders who negotiate a cease-fire for the evening. The soldiers all tentatively gather outside the trenches and share their food, alcohol, and photographs of sweethearts. At midnight Father Palmer delivers Midnight Mass in Latin for all the troops. Heartbreakingly, the dismissal rights Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum “The Peace of the Lord be with you always” is interrupted by the resumption of artillery fire and shelling in the distance.
Some critics at the time argued the film was too sentimental and wouldn’t work with a more modern war where conflicts run deeper. Such opinions predate the work of films and TV which did humanize and empathize with radical extremist terrorists. Joyeux Noël demonstrates the community of the soldiers during the Midnight Mass by showing that they’re all Christians and able to recite the rites in Latin (though Bruhl’s character rather bluntly proclaims himself to be Jewish). But we haven’t quite gotten that moment with Muslim ‘insurgents’. Yet millions of Americans are Muslim. And deeper than that we are all human. Bruhl’s line is “I am Jewish so Christmas means nothing to me. But tonight is a night I will never forget.” Fellowship, generosity, peace on Earth. It all begins with a glimmer of empathy.
The next morning, the German soldiers witness movement in No-Man’s Land but crucially hesitate to fire, unlike earlier in the film when a German sharpshooter is commended for being vigilant and firing at any movement. Instead a white flag is raised and the commanders once again reunite. They agree to spend Christmas Day burying the dead. They exchange the bodies lost on opposite sides from various assaults and manage to clear No-Man’s Land of corpses. Father Palmer performs the funerals. More fraternization occurs, including a soccer game. Tensions loom over the camp as everyone remains keenly aware that hostilities must soon resume.
The next day however, news of an incoming German artillery strike prompts Lieutenant Horstmayer to invite the French and Scottish regiments into his trench. Afterwards the French and Scotsmen return the favor. It’s a funny and touching scene, one attested to by a few accounts of the real Christmas Truce. It’s also incredibly treasonous. The real truce was not an anti-authoritarian or anti-war demonstration. In this respect the film draws again on our collective recollection of the event and is no doubt colored by the 1917 Mutinies. The soldiers in the film find themselves unable to attack the men they’ve come to know and are met with outrage and disappointment from their superiors. These soldiers, cowering together in their trenches as thunder and fire hails from the sky, are fighting a brand new kind of war that nobody behind the front lines has any idea about. It’s impossible for them not to sympathize with the enemy.
The event is to be covered up and the troops all transferred. After managing to escape the sound and fury of their respective nations bombardment, the troops are visited by their respective leaders. Even Father Palmer is forced to reckon with his Bishop (the late Ian Richardson) who expresses deep dismay at the Father’s actions going so far as to urge him to leave the Church. The Bishop is then seen giving a sermon to the relieving Scottish troops, commanding them to wipe the Germans from the face of the Earth in a Crusade for the good of God and all Humanity. The film ends with the Germans shipped to the Eastern Front the French redeployed to Verdun, and the Scottish regiment disbanded and the men scattered across the Western Front. All of them unable to shake the lesson they learned. Dreaming no longer of crushing their foes but instead and forevermore of home.