Since my WTF ASIA entry that is scheduled for Christmas Eve is not at all related to Christmas, I will talk about my favorite Christmas film.

It has become almost cliché to say that Die Hard is one’s favorite Christmas movie. If I wanted to be all cute about what constitutes a Christmas movie, then I would say that Brazil is my favorite. But if I want to be sincere, I would say that my favorite CHRISTMAS movie would be 2005’s Joyeux Noel, which means “Merry Christmas” in French. It is especially timely as this Christmas time marks the 100th anniversary of the events that are dramatized in the film.

 

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It is 1914 and war is about to break out in Europe. After a little montage of xenophobic poetry recited by schoolchildren from France, Britain, and Germany, the film introduces the three sides of the story. It first cuts to Scotland, where a young man named William bursts into a church to tell his younger brother, Jonathan, that he volunteered to join the war out of boredom and a desire for glory. He has also signed up his Jonathan. Father Palmer looks unhappy. Then it cuts to Germany, where an opera singer named Nikolaus has his performance cut due to the announcement of war.

The film then cuts to France, where Lieutenant Audebert is about to lead his regiment into the German trenches. He claims that this should be a routine mission due to the constant bombing of the German trenches. He also reminds them that they should all be able to return home for Christmas if all goes well. Well, all goes badly. Many of the French and Scottish soldiers who make past the explosions on No Man’s Land to the German side get cut down in the trenches by machine gun fire. Audebert almost dies. Jonathan manages to find his brother to see him die. The French and Scottish troops who survive retreat back to their trenches.

The next half hour of the movie is one of waiting. Of boredom. Of restlessness. Of mourning. Eventually, the battlefield is covered with snow as well as bodies. Both sides are preparing for Christmas celebration, but they are reminded to stay on guard for enemy attacks. The soldiers are getting tired and frustrated.

Anna, a Danish opera singer, has arranged for a Christmas Eve recital at a German headquarters (an occupied French castle) for the Crown Prince and her husband, Nikolaus, is called from the front lines that night to perform with her. Leutnant Horstmayer, who is already annoyed by all of the Christmas sent by the upper leadership, is almost too eager to send this useless upper-class artist away from the front. The performance goes off with…one hitch. Nikolaus is already changed by four or five months of fighting and his thoughts are of his comrades. He wants to sing for them.

Back at the Front, all three groups are celebrating Christmas in their trenches, in the cold. The Scotts sing and play bagpipes as Nikolaus returns to the German trench with Anna. The German troops start placing their Christmas trees (that the Kaiser had ordered them to decorate with candles) on top of the parapets for the French and Scots to see as Nikolaus sings “Silent Night” in German, accompanied by a harmonica. Father Palmer can hear him across No Man’s Land and decides to play along with his bagpipes. Nikolas stands up further up so that the other soldiers can see him, but the French and Scottish can see him too. The Scottish start to sit on top of the trenches so that they can watch him.

Father Palmer starts to play “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” and Nikolaus sings along, picks up a Christmas tree, and walks right to the center No Man’s Land. Horstmayer walks to him and tries to get him to return to the trench, but then Scottish Lieutenant Gordon walks up to them. The movie cuts to the French side instead of telling the audience what was said, but by the time Audebert goes to see what is going on, it is revealed that the two were discussing a truce for Christmas Eve. Audebert is skeptical, but agrees. The soldiers on both sides emerge from the trenches with food and drink to fraternize. There is some tension and confusion, but the truce holds.

Joyeux Noel is heavily fictionalized, but based on real events. Actually, there were several unofficial and unauthorized ceasefires, at least during the first year of the First World War. What made the Christmas Truce unique was how widespread it was. The higher ups were furious, as this was a type of treason worse than mutiny. While they did not want to publicize the practice by trial and execution, they would make it extremely difficult for it to happen again. There had been a few Christmas cease fires in 1915 and even a few in early 1916, but hardly to the extent of 1914. And during the rest of the war, forget it.

Despite some text at the end that says otherwise, the movie seems to imply that this Christmas Truce was unique to these groups of soldiers. This depiction may be coyly misleading, but it does not actually come out and say that that was the case. Regardless, this narrow scope allows for various anecdotes to be told while making them personal and focused. The fraternization, the opera singer, the combined burial and mass, the cat with two names, the soccer match, the warnings about artillery fire. A few of the plot points are made up, but many were based on fact; even a few of the more ridiculous elements were actually toned down compared to what really happened.

This movie is set in one of the worst wars in modern history, but it is not really about war. Except for two minutes towards the beginning and a few moments of violence here and there, there is no bloodshed. This is about one of those rare occasions when the war is broken and peace has broken out. It is only indirectly about family, it not about consumerism at all, and its statements about religion are deliberately ambivalent. It is about a moment of pure humanity during a time of utter inhumanity. It is a Christmas movie that is about the power of Christmas. There is a sense of sadness that hangs over the story, for just as the viewers know that this moment of respite follows months of death and killing, they also know that this moment will be followed by years of death and killing. But, can you continue to slaughter of the opposition after you have been surrounded by their humanity? This movie suggests not.

This movie could have easily combined the cynical humor of modern Hollywood Christmas comedies with the cynical anger of anti-war films. Instead, there is something completely sincere and heartfelt about this movie. It can come across as corny and heavy-handed at times, aaaand the lip-synching for the opera singing is a little shaky at times. Some people, taking what I believe is a rather narrow view of the themes, may conclude that the events that take place in the movie are irrelevant to the current age of conflict. If you can look beyond all of that, thenyou may find yourself deeply moved by this movie. I was, and I am.

By Some Jerk From Boston

I make words fall from my brain into your eye holes. I also make swear words with my mouth that attack your ears. I like me. Twitter: @SomeJerkFB

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