Although I do believe in Christmas miracles, I think most of them are in a small scale, or particularly personal — they’re not the sort of miracles that tend to be remembered beyond those who experience them. But there are exceptions, and perhaps one of the most famous of the last century was the 1914 Christmas Ceasefire, when troops engaged in combat during World War I put aside their weapons for a day and sang songs, exchanged gifts, and even played soccer with one another.
Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) is a 2005 French film that dramatizes that day in beautiful fashion. Set against the backdrop of the ceasefire, this movie explores that Christmas through the eyes of a Scottish priest (Gary Lewis), a French lieutenant (Guillaume Canet) and a pair of German opera singers (Benno Furmann and Diane Krueger). On Christmas Eve, a German tenor sneaks his lover into the trenches to sing to his troops. As the music carries across enemy lines, the Scottish and the French join in, and something amazing happens.
The film works on many, many levels. First and foremost, it is a touching Christmas story, a nice statement on the power of the holiday to bring about peace even to the bitterest of enemies. The movie is a touching monument to a bright spot in the midst of one of the most violent times in human history. It also works simply as a war movie. Although there’s very little action or violence, writer/director Christian Carion puts forth a remarkable vision of life in the trenches during World War I. You feel the pain, the fear, and perhaps more than anything else, the sheer exhaustion and weariness that permeated the men on the front lines. What’s more, it also sheds a different light on history — we’ve all heard about the ceasefire and extolled the story as an example of Christmas spirit striking when it was needed the most. But the film also shows the consequences of that day for the men involved. How easy could it be to go back to shooting at somebody once you’ve shared a drink with him, seen a picture of his wife, or even argued with him about the name of the cat that’s been spending time in both camps? What’s more, what happens when word reaches the high command about how you spent Christmas fraternizing with the enemy?
In addition to a strong story, the film is simply very well made. The battlefield is a bleak, cold-looking place, the costumes are magnificent, and the performances are fine. The one fault, I think, comes in the scenes with the opera singers. I’m not sure about Krueger, but Furmann didn’t do his own singing for this movie, and the shift from the actor’s natural voice to the dubbed singing voice is highly noticeable and does, unfortunately, take you briefly out of the movie. Try closing your eyes at that point, it helps quite a bit.
The characters in the film all speak their native languages, so a lot of the movie is in French or German and subtitled, which doesn’t bother me in the slightest, but if you’re not a fan of subtitled movies that is something to keep in consideration. If you can get past that, though, seek this out and watch it this year. It’s a Christmas movie you haven’t seen before, and its one that I really think everyone should see, particularly in this day and age.