Joyeux Noël (2005)
Director: Christian Carion
Cast: Diane Krüger, Benno Fürmann, Guillaume Canet, Gary Lewis, Alex Ferns, Danny Boon, Daniel Brühl.
Plot: It’s Christmas 1914 and all the soldiers from different countries decide to stop fighting and celebrate Christmas together in the trenches.
Joyeux Noël starts with original images and photos from the war period – the music is captivating from the beginning – and you already get the feeling that it’s going to be a magical and emotional film. The plot centres around the sometimes forgotten Christmas truce which took place during WWI between the allied troops of Europe and the soldiers of Germany. The film is very interesting and well directed, and it’s clear that Christian Carion (who also wrote the screenplay) clearly put all of his heart into it – it’s a passion piece. His direction of his own screenplay makes for an apparent bond of written and visual storytelling. Firstly, the close ups that were used on the soldiers, and especially the generals and the superiors, were really meaningful. Secondly, the start of the film where we see young children from France, England and Germany being indoctrinated with hate and superiority beliefs, was actually quite disturbing. It astonished me, even though I was aware of this kind of propaganda, as it was also very common during WW2, but hearing the words used by those children and how they mechanically repeated them, was really quite gut-wrenching. The dialogues between the young French Lieutenant Camille René Audebert (Guillaume Canet) and his father were always quite poignant. The scenes involving all of the characters are meaningful and important; you truly have to pay attention from start to finish to take as much from this movie as you can. I think the character of the bishop who scolds the priest, father Palmer (Gary Lewis), is particularly powerful, as he preaches hate to the newly arrived recruits. The way the director lets us see through father Palmer’s eyes what the bishop is saying is without doubt one of the highlights of the film as we are forced to feel his pain as he hears the Bishop preach.
The story focuses mainly on the lives of French Lieutenant Camille René Audebert (Guillaume Canet), the German lieutenant Horstmayer (Daniel Brühl) and Lieutenant Gordon a Scottish member of the British army. The figure of the Scottish priest, father Palmer (Gary Lewis), is also very important, as mentioned earlier. His role within the context of the battle is as a reluctant fighter who serves as a stretcher-barer to help the wounded.
All these men long to be back home as soon as possible and would be much happier to spend Christmas with their loved ones. Miss Anna Sørensen, a Danish Soprano, also wants her fiancé by her side – the German Tenor Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann). She manages to be with him for a night thanks to the permission of the Crown Prince, and she decides to go with Sprink and sing for the soldiers during Christmas. The relationship between French Lieutenant Camille Audebert and his loyal batman Ponchel (Danny Boon) is also important to the plot as the two share a real friendship and it is clear that Audebert doesn’t see Ponchel just as his servant but also as his dearest friend. Ponchel acts as comic relief to an otherwise very dramatic movie and is therefore important in that he breaks up some of the tension to let you breathe at the right times. He’s also presented as a loyal and caring friend who helps the plot by questionning Audebert about his family and so on.
This film was almost perfect, except for maybe a few tweaks. The German side, for example, isn’t as explored as the French; we see the German trench mostly through the eyes of Sprink but not of his superior Lieutenant Horstmayer, or the other characters. Horstmayer is a remarkable character too – it’s hinted that his wife is French and his goodness and reluctance to fight are both very clear. He also shows care for Lieutenant Audebert and for Lieutenant Gordon and they all seem to develop a bond. The Scottish side is explored almost exclusively through the eyes of Father Palmer, who embodies the fraternity between different nations that pervades the trenches for the duration of the truce. Although the Scottish are shown to be the first to start the truce, this isn’t historically correct since there’s evidence that it was actually the Germans who started singing Christmas songs and were soon joined by the English and Scottish, and later the French – this is another issue I have.
It’s true that, as some critics have said, the film is very sentimental, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a negative, for Joyeux Noël was meant for an audience who knew what to expect given the legend of the event, in this case the Christmas truce. So, a viewer shouldn’t be surprised to see solidarity, love and friendship instead of blood and an onslaught of violence, because that’s what it is supposed to be about. I was personally touched by the strong meaning and message of the film I even cried at some of the more touching parts. Soldiers started to see that there wasn’t much difference between themselves and their opposition and that’s why their superiors punished them, because if all people (not only the soldiers) had realized that, then there would have been no reason to keep fighting that war. The ending of the film presents this clearly thanks to the array of meaningful frames presented by DOP Walther van den Ende.
The cast was carefully chosen, with stars from all over Europe: German Diane Krüger and Daniel Brühl, French comedian Danny Boon, and French actor Guillaume Canet. I found the casting to be very well fitted to their roles and clearly talented, which is certainly a plus. Another plus is the fact that all of the actors spoke in their native languages, apart from the scenes where the characters were together – they were speaking in English in those scenes and this was interesting because it ensured that the characters were presented as if the actual soldiers speaking as they probably did in the trenches. Usually when a cast of different nationalities is involved they all adopt English as the medium of communication – it’s pretty weird and not at all plausible to hear a French or a German speak in English 100% of the time – but this was not the case with this film, and I was really pleased about that.
On a brighter note, I’m very happy to know that the director Christian Carion is thinking of making a sequel on the lives of Lieutenants Horstmayer and Audebert.
I chose to review this film at Christmas because I think it’s not as well-known of a story as it should be and the movie deserves more praise. In many respects, Joyeux Noël is the typical Christmas movie that spreads feelings of kindness, love and peace that I think we all need at this time of the year. Because of its ever-lasting relevance and how much we all need to remember these positive similarities in a world divided by fear, Joyeux Noël gets a…
I'm particularly passionate about British and German cinema, and I'm a sucker for a good old war film.