The story goes that a stray cat found itself wandering among the various trenches in the no man’s land of the First World War. The cat was merely in search of the best opportunities for food when a soldier from the German unit placed a note around it’s neck to communicate to the other trenches. When the high command of the French unit was made aware of this, they decided to take action following the only rules of engagement they knew: The cat must be considered a spy and executed for espionage. Now, whether or not you believe this story depends on your general disposition. The truth is that it doesn’t really matter. It’s an interesting anecdote which illuminates a larger truth regarding the absurdity of war.
Now, there was nothing “great” about The Great War and we certainly know it was an abysmal failure as a war to end all wars. In truth, it was nothing less than a complete nightmare, a European machine gun massacre which left more than a million dead and dragged the “honor” of 19th century warfare kicking and screaming into the 20th century’s new technology of mass murder.
And apparently led to the execution of one very unlucky cat.
There is a silent contract between an audience and a storyteller that allows for the all important “suspension of disbelief” to take effect. This contract stipulates that the audience not examine things too closely while the storyteller does not overtly challenge credulity. The anecdote about the executed spycat stretches believability but does not actually reach the snapping point.
It comes close, however, and writer-director Christian Carion seems superficially aware of this problem, and removes the execution of the cat from the final cut. But it’s the only problem he seems to be aware of, and this is the death sentence for Joyeux Noel.
Carion’s well-meaning film tells the strange-but-true story of the “Christmas Truce”. For one magical night, three armies, the Scottish, the French, and the Germans, decided to lay down their weapons and celebrate the holiday together in the name of a larger brotherhood. They shared drinks, smoked cigarettes, played soccer, sang songs, buried their dead, and tried to imagine the world they knew before the war. All dreading the time when they must return to their own trenches and take up arms once again to play soldier, against one another.
I first heard this story when I was in the fourth grade. It was told to me with the same kind of enthusiasm as the one about the Vanishing Hitchhiker and the Mexican hairless rat. The beauty of the story is that (in my best Jack Palance voice) “believe it or not” — it actually happened. But even if it didn’t, someone would’ve had to invent it since it’s one of those obvious stories which have the simplicity and clarity of a fable. The problem with telling this story onscreen is that it’s almost too simplistic, too obviously meaningful in itself to allow any kind of point of view besides cold objectivity. Any embellishment or exaggeration of effect would simply break the very thin suspension of disbelief required. This is clearly why Joyeux Noel fails. To make this a truly powerful, moving story onscreen, the only exaggeration allowable is that these enemies would cease fire at all. That’s what makes it a compelling story. But Carion cannot leave the story well enough alone. So, the simple poetry of the tale is buried under a pile of absurd melodrama and sentimental manipulation.
For example, after asking us to believe the basic concept of the film, he then asks us to believe that a beautiful Danish soprano Anna Sörensen (Diane Krüger) can visit the German troops in the trenches that dramatic evening and spend the night there with her part-time tenor / part-time soldier boyfriend (Benno Fürmman). He wants us to accept that a French officer (Guillaume Canet) can sneak away from the battlefield disguised as a German soldier and infiltrate occupied territory to find out whether or not he’s the father of a boy or a girl. He presents the story of a pair of Scottish brothers (Steven Robertson, Robin Laing) who are at first thrilled to go to war, until one of them is, of course, killed in their first engagement. Luckily, the surviving brother can receive counsel from his very own village priest since he happens to be the unit’s Chaplain. People seem to come and go at will, the snow looks much like the North Pole set of a department store Santa, and the trenches are cleaner than the New York Yankees dugout. Believability has just left the building.
Now, I am sure most of what I just described can be proven to have actually occurred during the war. The tale of the cat is supposed to have been recorded as fact, as well. The trouble is not with any single strange-but-true event, but the cumulative effect of one amazing event on top of another. This method turns the proceedings very quickly into farce. I don’t think that is what Carion was intending. I think he wanted to be earnest and sincere. But like Phil Collins’ trite observations on social injustice in songs like “Another Day in Paradise”, Carion is not an artist up to the challenge. He wants to be Kubrick but can barely reach Capra. In fact, I am sure he was thinking Paths of Glory but, unfortunately, ended up with Why Must We Fight.
The director sincerely wants us to believe in the “we are the world” humanity of his characters, but fails to present any three-dimensional human characters in the movie. Each is merely represented by their team uniform and nothing more than half-remembered clichés of old war movies. Besides, Carion wants so much to move us to tears through the universal power of Christmas Carols that he almost turns his war film into a holiday musical and moves us instead to laughter. If you think you’ve seen bad lip-synch musicals before, beware: Diane Kruger and Benno Furmann give Ashley Simpson a run for her money.
The First World War has never really been a popular subject for the movies. Its sequel, World War II, would inspire many more films. Clearly the Star Wars moral adventure of taking down Darth Vader / Adolf Hitler plays better than the tangled web of political motives behind the bloody trenches of the Somme. The epic body count and suicidal desperation of the Great War is perfect material for a filmmaker genuinely offended by its wages. Films such as Gallipoli, with it’s harrowing frozen final shot, and Paths of Glory, with it’s presentation of human life played by the aristocracy as pawns in a chess game, genuinely express this moral outrage. The problem here is that Carion thinks he is making a film which similarly debunks the romanticism of war, but the very romanticism of his story defeats him. This isn’t about moral outrage or the wages of war, but about the power of Catholicism to unify mankind. Instead of being profound, the film leaves us with empty platitudes.
Nominated for the 2005 Best Foreign Film Academy Award, Joyeux Noel is the kind of sentimental tripe the Academy loves to honor in order to justify their own sentimental tripe. Instead of awarding great filmmaking, they instead award the “great” subjects of often mediocre films: the heroes of WWII who saved Private Ryan, the poor souls who went down with the Titanic, and of course, Gandhi himself. It was probably a relief to learn that the French could make a movie as artificial and absurd as our own Pearl Harbor. That it lost to a much better film, Tsotsi is inexplicable but deserved.
In the interview extra provided on the DVD, Carion is asked repeatedly about the facts of the story. His answers basically return to the fact that, yes, everything in the movie is true except that these events did not happen often or were very much the exception to the rule. By choosing to depict a series of amazing events which were exceptions to the actual experience of the war, Carion ends up with a completely unbelievable film. His hand is simply too heavy to capture the poetic magic of that special night. A more sensitive director such as Jean Renoir would’ve known to simply present the tale without any ornamentation. For although a strange story may actually be true, it may also be hard to swallow. Carion was right to save the stray cat from the firing squad. Too bad he couldn’t save the rest of his movie, as well.