Saturday, December 17, 2011


A Different Kind of Christmas Classic

At this time of year, the television networks are filled with holiday specials and Christmas films: much-loved staples like White Christmas and Holiday Inn, It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle On 34th Street. My personal favorite is the Barbara Stanwyck/Dennis Morgan classic, Christmas In Connecticut. It was on TCM recently and I watched it for what must be the 20th time. It’s a perfect Christmas confection, its plot totally implausible, but magical none-the-less.

Over the years several more films have joined the holiday classics club, from 1983’s A Christmas Story to Home Alone, Love Actually (another favorite of mine), and The Holiday, featuring Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet Jack Black and Jude Law, giving a particularly (don’t cringe), sweet performance. But if you’d like something with a little more substance, I suggest you look into a terrific 2005 French film called Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas).

Written and directed by Christian Carion, it is the fictional tale of a 1914 Christmas truce five months into World War I. Drawn from a variety of factual accounts, letters, speeches and documents, it is both thrilling and chilling, powerful and poignant.

Unlike most wartime movies, Joyeux Noel is devoid of bloody carnage, high action sequences, rough language and Patton-like bravado. It is, rather, a film about the men who fought the war, the generals who presided over it, the loved ones who feared it, and the truce that held it at bay.

The opening sequences of the film give the viewer a stylized picture of the years preceding what we would come to know as "he Great War" as European schoolboys recite poems and platitudes of hatred aimed at other European nations. Lifted directly from government pamphlets and periodicals of the period, these unsettling recitations give us an idea of how these children were indoctrinated and primed for a war that was as much as twenty years away. An 1895 newsletter from one minister of education dictates that boys over the eight learn to shoot a Lebel rifle on the playground, armed with real bullets. This militarization of children had its effect. By the time they were old enough to fight, they were enthusiastically lining up to enlist.

On the DVD’s commentary track, we are told that the number of enlisted men in the early day of the war swelled to the point where the army could no longer properly train and prepare them for war. Within a month, nearly half of those who had volunteered were dead.

From this prologue we are transported high above a long and winding road to a small Anglican church deep within the Scottish Highlands, where news of the war is fresh, and response, immediate. As the local parish priest looks on, a young man of eighteen or nineteen, races into the church to share the news with his younger brother. All three will soon leave the safety of their village for life on the Western Front, where all too soon the good father will pray over one of the boy’s lifeless bodies. From this brief sequence, we understand that war knows no bounds or boundaries. It is, by all accounts, an equal opportunity destroyer.

In a blink we find ourselves in the opulent Berlin Opera House, where the celebrated Danish soprano Anna Sorensen (Diane Kruger) is singing before a packed house. As her lover and co-star, tenor Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Furmann) waits in the wings, a German officer interrupts the concert to announce that war has been declared. Within moments the crowd has dispersed, and the lives of everyone in the hall, including the soprano and her tenor, have changed forever.

Five months pass. It is December 24th―Christmas Eve, 1914. We are on the Western Front, somewhere between Ostend, Belgium and Basel, Switzerland, where working farms―still unscathed by the ravages of war, dot the landscape.

Over the course of the film we will learn more about the men who inhabit the trenches of this no man’s land, from the Anglican priest and his two young parishioners, to a French lieutenant who had to leave his pregnant wife five months into a difficult pregnancy. He lives in a state of limbo, not knowing whether she survived the birth, or if he has a son or daughter. We’ll meet a Military father whose view of the war is very different than that of his soldier son, a Jewish soldier who will be warmed by the spirit of Christmas and a young man who will risk his life for a cup of coffee with his mother. These men, along with Nicholas and Anna, guide the film on an emotional journey ranging from exhilaration to distress, comfort to anger, and helplessness to hope. It is Anna, the only woman in the piece with any real dialogue, who represents the families and friends who watch, worry and pray for their loved one’s safe return.

As seen through the cinematographer’s lens, the battlefield is as intimate as it is foreboding, the area so small, you can easily walk from one trench to another other. As Christmas approaches, the battlefield is silent. Were it not for the snow-covered bodies of fallen soldiers lying in wait to be retrieved and buried at battle’s end, this star-studded night would be quite lovely.

The spirit of Christmas is not lost on these men. In the German trench, presents from home are passed around, and traditional holiday carols fill the air. The tenor, back from an ill-conceived concert for the Germany’s kronprinz, sings a stirring version of "Silent Night" for his fellow soldiers. It is a song all of Europe knows well, and as his voice waifs across the battlefield, it cannot help but warm the hearts of those in the French and Scottish trenches.

In the distance, there is the sound of gunfire, and sudden sparks of light, but here, in this place, at this time a silent night turns holy, as slowly but surely, the French, German and Scottish lieutenants lay down their rifles and come together in the center of the battlefield.

“I’m French.”
“I’m German.”
“I’m Scottish, not British” says another.
“Do you speak English?”
“Yes” replies the German. “A little.”

And so begins this dance – this fragile truce, and the chance set the war aside, if only for a little while.

“We’re talking about a ceasefire for Christmas Eve,” says one lieutenant. “What do you think? The outcome of this war won’t be decided tonight. I don’t think anyone will criticize us for laying down our rifles on Christmas Eve.”

Of course, he is wrong. There will be those who look upon this coming together as treasonous. But the men themselves will have no shame or regrets.

Were this another time, place or war, the very idea of such a truce would have been unthinkable. But this was 1914. The war had just begun, and memories of home were still fresh in these yet-to-be-hardened soldier’s minds. They were alone. The area was contained. They were, in some respects, suspended in time. News to and from the front was delivered by messenger, allowing them to pause without fear of being disbanded or reprimanded by their war room generals.

And so we see them come together, sharing a joke, a toast and a song, confiding their hopes and dreams, and admiring photos of wives and children left behind. Before the night is through, they will eat German chocolates, down Scottish mussels and drink French champagne. Returning to their trenches, they leave with a new regard for the men they will soon face in battle.

While, as the two lovers, Kruger and Furmann share the most screen time, there is little doubt that Joyeux Noel is an ensemble piece: a story of many stories based on real people and events. Most are told through brief conversations and visual cues. There are no long soliloquies. No lengthy revelations. No major character studies. Much of what we learn we learn through small bits and pieces of information: a sentence here, a close-up there.

Carion’s decision to cast actors who share the same nationality as their character’s was a bold but rewarding one. It certainly would have been easier to have had everyone speak the same language, adding an accent as needed. But you lose something when you do that. Only die-hard fans could ignore the fact that Sean Connery’s Russian Captain spoke with a decidedly Scottish accent in Hunt for Red October, or that Tom Cruises’ German Lieutenant in Valkyrie sounded like he was born and raised in Syracuse, New York.

In casting Germans as Germans, Frenchmen as Frenchmen, and Scots as Scots, Carion infused an authenticity into the film. But at the same time, his decision to do so no doubt cost him some ticket sales, as there are some people (you may be one of them) who are put off by subtitles. And when you have people speaking different languages within a film, there’s no way around them. So consider yourself forewarned. Unless you are fluent in English, French and German, you’re going to need them and read them. But dealing with subtitles is a small price to pay for the rewards. So put on your readers and enjoy the show. And take advantage of the DVD's commentary track and bonus interview. You'll find them to be a great resource in filling in the blanks. They're loaded with all manner of information, back-stories, facts and historical anecdotes that make the film even more engaging.

The music is pretty terrific as well. While Joyeux Noel is far from a musical, there are some wonderful musical moments within it, from the stirring group vocals to the opera stars’ solos as performed by Natalie Dessay and Rolando Villazon. Other instrumental interludes include the sound of bagpipes playing “I’m Dreaming of Home”, and the music and symbolism of a soldier’s harmonica. Carion was fascinated by the idea that music provided the common ground that set the stage for the truce, both historically and within the framework of the film.

Joyeux Noel is an idealized version of what could happen (and, in fact, did happen) when differences are (were) put aside. But if it seems more than a bit naïve, remember that unlike more recent conflicts, this war was more about defining territories and the balance of power than race, religion, or the fear of weapons of mass destruction. With that in mind, one can see where these men were able to set aside their guns if only for a little while, to celebrate life, and even contemplate a time when they might meet again in peace. Yet and still, Joyeux Noel is also a story of consequences, and the price too often paid for putting right above might.

At a time when much of the world is in conflict, and so many find so little room for compromise, this little movie gives us reason to believe that we will find that common ground, and feel better for it. That alone makes this film well worth watching.

Before I go, I want to thank you for supporting this blog, for sending in your Food Finds, telling your friends about the site, and coming back for more. Have a wonderful holiday, stay healthy, be happy and I’ll see you back here with another great film ‘pic’ before you know it.

Till the next time…

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