Now, he is old; his back will never brace;
He’s lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.
— Wilfred Owen, “Disabled”
A series of schoolboys stand at the front of a series of empty classrooms, reciting the same pledge to their homelands. As the camera pushes in, each child speaks in his own language — French, English, German — performing a promise to “annihilate” the enemy who threatens his god-given national identity.
Following this plainly ominous opening, Christian Carion’s Oscar-nominated Joyeux Noël adopts an ostensibly broader perspective. Now, you know, comes the results of such indoctrination, as the camera soars over gorgeous, unmarred landscapes en route to a ruralish church in Scotland. It’s 1914, and inside, two strapping blond brothers are celebrating the fact that war has been declared. “At last,” says Jonathan (Steven Robertson), ringing the bell before he rushes out the door to spread the news, “Something has happened in our lives!”
He has no idea, of course, how devastating this something will be. But as he exits, the camera lingers on the face of their gentle Anglican priest, Palmer (Gary Lewis), aghast. He ends up going to the front as a stretcher-bearer, in his own effort to provide spiritual comfort for the young men of his parish (the other, slightly reluctant brother is William [Robin Laing]). The changes in their understandings of what they’ve signed on for register when they reach the front — rendered in repeated close-ups of the boys’ faces, becoming even paler, and in Palmer’s earnest attempts to maintain a sort of “order,” the sort premised on Catholic rituals for marking death.
As its title suggests, the film pivots on the first Christmas of WWI, when the Scottish kids find themselves in a trench near a French unit headed by Lieutenant Audebert (Guillaume Canet). He’s also inclined to keep an orderly facade, but he prefers to think about his pregnant wife (whose photo he does on, at least until he loses it) and listen to the nostalgic tales of familial joys told by his plucky orderly Ponchel (Dany Boon). If only they retain the possibility of returning to their previous lives, they think, the war will be over someday soon, and their routines will be recovered. In fact, the Great War will go on through 1918, and leave millions dead.
To indicate the “diversity” of men affected, Joyeux Noël cuts between the Scottish and French units, and a third, the Germans, positioned in an opposing trench across a patch of land within hearing distance. The German troops appear much like the French and Scottish, in that they are tentative, bored, and exhausted — the mud is tedious, the bombs screaming and exploding, the expectation of stoic resolve daunting. But their fierce young commander, Hörstmayer (Daniel Brühl), postures as the stereotypical German officer, acting out his own disappointment wit the inglorious situation by disdaining the “artist” among his otherwise solidly working class troops, the opera singer Nikolaus Sprink (body by Benno Fürmann, voice by Rolando Villazón).
While he means to be a regular soldier, Sprink is introduced in a way to underline his privilege and isolation: he’s on a soundstage, performing in a movie about warriors, with his life and professional partner, the Danish born Anna Sörensen (Diane Kruger, last seen Stateside ripping through museums with Nic Cage in National Treasure). Here his profile is as beautiful as hers, and when they realize he too will be called up, they turn to offer parallel portraits in well-lit worry.
Desperate to see her man and privileged according to her stardom, arranges to bring Sprink to occupied France for a holiday concert, then accompanies him to the front, where she greets gaping-mouthed troops. Here, on Christmas Eve, with lighted trees sent up from headquarters, Sprink is overcome with sentiment, and begins singing “Silent Night” for his men, and, given their close spacing, the French and Scots as well (the Scots have their bagpipes along, and so provide accompaniment). Before they all quite know what’s happened, the commanding officers have convened and called a ceasefire for the night, thus allowing the men to share prayer (courtesy of dear Palmer), wine, and chocolate, a bit of soccer and a song by Anna (her voice by Natalie Dessay).
As the camera insistently cuts from one rapt face to another, designating the moment as the astounding confluence of minds, spirits, and peaceful impulses, a remarkable other scene takes place, just off to the side of the crowd. As you’ve already seen, Jonathan has died a terrible, lingering sort of death in the battlefield between the opposing trenches, and William had been forced to abandon him, with a sweet, sad kiss on the mouth as his farewell. The survivor takes the ceasefire as his opportunity to find his brother’s corpse, frozen beneath a slight crust of snow.
On making this discovery, William falls on the body, straddling it in a striking display of grief and loneliness (throughout the film, he’s been writing voice-overed letters home to their mother, pretending both boys are fine and mean to come home). When another troop wanders along and offers a drink, William looks on him with such ghastly peculiarity that the friendly fellow backs off in a hurry. For all the pretty-to-think-so coming together of the other soldiers, under the auspices of shared “faith,” this scene is frankly striking, the cost of war made awful. This boy, you know, will never recover, even given the tinkly magic of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
And this is the lost opportunity of Joyeux Noël. It’s hardly subtle in its debunking of the “romance” of war, as the men mostly appear to hate it and welcome the chance to leave it behind, briefly. They also face some due punishment from anxious, fancy-suited superiors for their “fraternization” with enemies. In an effort to explain themselves and perhaps head off severe reprimand, the Scottish and French troops write protest letters to the “bastards, sitting pretty, who sent us here to slug it out.” (The Germans have no such illusion of reprieve: they’re locked in trains and sent off.)
But at the same time, the movie succumbs to its own mythology. The more simplistic angle here has to do with just who is able to come together in this “everyone’s really the same” revelry. Certainly few war zones today (or before, for that matter) would allow for such communal religious touchstones, given that religious belief is more often than not the impetus for war. Pressing the obvious point — war is absurd, cruel, politically motivated — Joyeux Noel overlooks complications to achieve another sort of romance.