Who would believe that a beautiful soprano voice and a reverent Christmas song could silence the bullets of three warring nations?
That is exactly what happened on Christmas Eve, 1914, on a snowy World War I battlefield. “Joyeux Noel,” or “Merry Christmas,” based on true events known as the Christmas Truce of 1914, tells the story of what happened that historic night and how it changed the lives of soldiers from France, Germany and England.
The weary soldiers, who had battled each other for months, sat in a three-trench triangle only yards away from each other. They were hungry, tired, scared and bullets whizzed by their ears.
Lt. Audebert’s (Guillaume Canet) troops were holed up in a French house just behind German lines, adjacent to the trench where his men fought and waited. Audebert, a quiet and humble man, does not believe in war. Guillaume Canet plays him with great humility. Each time he sees another of his men fall, his pained expression reveals his distress.
At one point he states, “We have more in common with the German soldiers than with the French politicians that are sending us off into war.”
The English, including the Scots, are led by Officer Gordon (Alex Ferns) and are allies of the French. Just as distressed as their comrades about being away from home, they have three things that set them apart. They have their bagpipes, the two brothers Jonathan (Steven Robertson) and William (Robin Laing) who are bonded like glue and Father Palmer (Gary Lewis). He joined the service as a stretcher-bearer and at least brings some semblance of normalcy to the men.
German Officer Horstmayer (Daniel Bruhl) reminds his men the game is all war. Conversely, they are all surprised when each one receives a Christmas tree sent to the front line complete with lights. Yet one of their biggest assets is Nicholas Sprink (Benno Furmann), a famous German tenor who was drafted. He sneaks away one night and spends the night with his girlfriend, Anna Sorensen (Diane Kruger), who sings alongside him in the opera.
The next morning, Christmas Eve, he insists he must return to his regiment. Anna insists on going with him to help the morale of the soldiers.
By the time they arrive that evening, a somewhat unexpected cease-fire has fallen over the compound. As Nicholas begins to sing “Silent Night,” the Scottish bagpipers change their song to accompany him. A mood of peace and reverence cloak the German soldiers as each ones sets his Christmas tree atop the trench, creating a line with a glorious glow.
Men pop up their heads all around and, one by one, step to the center of the encampment as Father Palmer begins a rendition of “O, Come All Ye Faithful.” Suddenly, the troops are intermingled, sharing French wine, German chocolate, arguing over who owns the cat that roams from trench to trench and eventually playing a game of soccer together.
It’s heartfelt and tearful for some to see the men’s reactions to one another as they realize they are not evil warriors who only want to trade bullets, but normal guys who want to go back home and live out their lives in peace.
By the next day, the three countries’ officers go one step more. They call a truce on Christmas Day so they can gather up the dead that lie frozen in the snow and properly bury them. It’s clear that if these officers had the power to end the war, it might have happened right there and then. But they each have a superior officer who does not see things the same way.
French Director Christian Carion grew up on a farm in Northern France and knew full well about the significant war that was fought there. When he decided to research the war, he discovered the book, “Battles of Flanders and Artois 1914-1918" by Yves Buffetaut, which included passages about the so-called “Incredible Winter of 1914.” After several years of researching French, German and English records of that time, Carion had enough insight into what really happened and the significance of it.
Carion’s use of an international cast who each speak in their own native tongue helps create an authenticity about “Joyeux Noel” that is terrific and enjoyable. The movie has won a slew of foreign awards and has been nominated for best foreign language film at both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes. It’s rare to leave a theater and think about a film for days after, but that’s exactly what happens after seeing this profoundly touching and uplifting movie.
“Joyeux Noel” is playing at La Jolla Village Cinema.