The only thing I knew about the film “Joyeux Noël” was the premise: In 1914, during the height of World War 1, informal ceasefires were declared along the front on Christmas Eve. Germans, French and English soldiers wanted time to bury their respective dead who lay scattered in No-Man’s Land. Once they met in the middle, the enemy became human and they shared in the celebration of Christ’s Nativity. The film is based on a compilation of true events although I suspect some of the scenes might be embellishments.
This powerful film opens with elementary aged boys in France, Germany and Scotland standing in front of their classes reciting national poems. They declare their hatred of the enemy and their loyalty to their respective countries. We next see a young man working in a small church alongside a priest in Scotland. The young man’s brother comes rushing in, excited to declare that war has broken out and that something exciting would truly happen to them.
An opera singer named Anna Sörensen is giving a performance in Germany and her partner, Nikolaus Sprink, is about to come on stage to sing with her. They are interrupted by a German soldier announcing the War by reading a statement from the Kaiser. Finally (some weeks or months later), we meet French Lieutenant Audebert getting ready to lead his men into the German trenches in order to gain the upper hand just before Christmas.
The director of this French film (with subtitles for the French and German, while also including some English), Christian Carion, does a fantastic job of making the men human. Audebert looks lovingly at a photo of he and his wife—who we learn was pregnant before he left and has probably had the baby, but she lives in occupied territory—before he leads the charge against the Germans. The Scottish priest, a Roman Catholic, named Palmer travels to the front to be with the young men of his parish. Sprink wants desperately to be back with Sörensen, and gets a break to see her on Christmas Eve when he travels from the front into the nearby German occupied territory of France in order to give a concert for high ranking military leaders.
But Sprink cannot stay away from his comrades on Christmas Eve, and Sörensen refuses to stay behind. They both return to the front. The French order a man to case where the German machine gunners lie, and as he crawls across the empty land between the trenches. While he’s doing this, Sprink begins singing “O Come All Ye Faithful,” which all the men hear. Fr. Palmer begins playing his bagpipe as accompaniment, and Sprink stops momentarily. As he looks at his fellow German soldiers and sees uncertainty, but he begins singing again all the more loudly. As he finishes that song, cheers of appreciation come from the Allied forces.
Ultimately, the tenor comes out from the trench carrying a small Christmas tree—the Germans had sent hundreds of small trees up to the front in order to boost morale. Scots and French soldiers contemplate shooting, but all are held at bay. The officers from all three sides ultimately come out, and declare a truce for Christmas Eve.
What follows is truly miraculous. I won’t spoil anything else for you.
This film was a real treasure. I am glad to give it my highest rating:
I know this will become a film I watch every year. Finally, a note: This is rated PG-13 for adult themes, war scenes (nothing gory) and one brief sexual scene. It’s not for younger kids simply because of those things.
In the queue: The 1951 version of “Scrooge.”