21 May 2007

Film Review: Joyeux Noel

This past semester, I had the good fortune to teach a U.S. “History on Film class. In planning the course, I had every intention of devoting several periods to antiwar films. While I am aware of some quality antiwar movies—I had to confront a curious problem. I have found that a number of these films—especially those about the Vietnam War—are interpreted by today’s students as very much pro-war in nature. Yes, the messages from Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Apocalypse Now are often missed and/or ignored by many of my students. Instead, they see exciting battles, shiny weapons, and heroic soldiers and come away thinking that war is glamorous—or at least valiant and courageous.

So in teaching this class for the first time, I decided to skip the antiwar section, not wishing to make these young conservatives any more enamored with blood and guts than they already are. I still feel somewhat guilty about that, but I will continue to advance my subversive, leftist agenda in other ways.

After the class ended, however, I did discover an excellent antiwar movie. The 2005 French film Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) is an engrossing look at a 1914 holiday cease fire. I enjoyed it so much that I would have seriously considered showing this foreign film in my American history course.

The film chronicles a short but spontaneous Christmas Eve truce declared by French, German, and Scottish troops during WW I. There is a battle scene at the start of Joyeux Noel, but after that, this film concerns what might happen if soldiers could act like individuals instead of being forced to follow the orders of hypocritical and out-of-touch politicians.

The outbreak of temporary peace in the trenches starts when Christmas trees are shipped to German troops. The troops then begin decorating and displaying the trees—singing commences, and the soldiers lay down their weapons and come out of the trenches to celebrate the holidays. What takes place then is magical—troops begin showing each other pictures of their wives and children, they share food and drink, converse, and even play soccer. These young men act like you would expect them to—they aren’t angry with the enemy, they simply wish to live. They leave the obnoxious nationalism and patriotic fervor to others. And director Christian Carion also minimizes nationalistic stereotypes—the film does not depict these individuals as German, French, or Scottish; they are simply men who are afraid and want to return home. This war (like all wars) is not about heroism. It’s terribly violent and people are killed for absolutely no reason.

There are several plot lines and situations that some critics have called unrealistic. Stephen Holden of the New York Times says the film feels “as squishy and vague as a handsome greeting card declaring peace on earth.” There are critics who have questioned the historical accuracy of this particular event. While I will not vouch for or comment on the historical details, there was a book published in 2001 on this topic. Stanley Weintraub’s, Silent Night informs readers of the history and background of the Christmas Truce. After viewing the film, many of you will probably wish to read this extremely informative book.

I do believe the director takes some liberties with the exact details of the event—even though we know that this moment of sanity did take place. But what actually disturbs me is that it is too often deemed “unrealistic” to discuss or show peace. Why is it so hard to believe that soldiers might actually choose to drop their weapons and greet their so-called enemies with open arms? In too many films (especially in the United States) it has become natural to glamorize war and violence, but once a director attempts to illustrate pacifist behaviors—then it becomes time to scoff and use criticisms like naive and idealistic. I never hear these “unrealistic” arguments used in war films—both critics and the bloodthirsty public too often simply accept that type of history without question.

I urge you to rent and watch Joyeux Noel. It is a quality film, as well as one of best antiwar movies ever made (it was nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the British and American Academy Awards as well as the Golden Globe Awards). The stellar cast includes Diane Kruger, Guillaume Canet, Daniel Bruhl, and Benno Furmann. You’ll get misty-eyed thinking about what is possible. And more importantly, this film will force you to reflect upon the futility of war itself and why we fight.


Pat said...

I have not seen the film, but often use the lovely song "Christmas in the Trenches" by John McCutcheon with my 6th grade American history students that is about the same incident. He has a live version where he tells the story of singing the song in Europe and having some of the ancient German veterans (who are now gone, I'm sure) come to his concert. They were thrilled to hear their story that so many people didn't believe. It will make you weep . . .

Anonymous said...