It's Christmas Eve, 1914. For weeks the French and Scots have fought in mud-filled trenches against the Germans, watching in horror as friends and family are gunned down. But in a moment of calm, the sound of bagpipes floats across the battlefield, and an opera tenor-turned-German soldier steps out of his trench and joins in. One by one, soldiers from all three armies drop their rifles and shake hands with the enemy. The commanders declare a holiday cease-fire, throwing a wrench into the great gears of the war machine.
Though it sounds like a feel-good Hollywood script, it's actually true. Filmmaker Christian Carion brings to life this stranger-than-fiction footnote in WWI history.
A nominee for the 2005 Foreign Film Oscar, Joyeux Noël is unapologetic in its humanism and more than a little corny. It's the type of old-fashioned filmmaking Frank Capra excelled at, where good intentions (and performances) trump excessive sap. (It's also baffling that Sony Pictures Classics chose not to release Joyeux Noël in December.)
French Lieutenant Audebert (Guillaume Canet), Scottish priest Palmer (Gary Lewis) and German opera singer Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann) are called into service and must leave behind their loved ones. Promised a short war, they soon find themselves trapped on the front lines during a particularly nasty winter, mere yards separating them from the enemy.
In recognition of the holiday, the Scots are provided with a case of whiskey, the French are ignored and the Germans get Christmas trees one every 100 feet.
Sprink's lover, Anna (Diane Kruger), desperate to be reunited with her paramour, arranges for him to perform for top military brass at a nearby château. After the concert, Sprink insists that they return to the trenches to sing for his comrades. When he hears bagpipes in the distance, he makes the gesture that leads to the remarkable momentary truce. Exchanging photos, sharing drinks and playing soccer, the men bond but after embracing one another as friends, the demands of combat become harder to obey.
It's evident Carion is more interested in plucking heartstrings than inspiring critical thoughts about the folly of war (he never once brings up the reasons World War I was fought). Still, as obvious and contrived as the film is, there are powerful moments of insight and honesty.
Though Carion's efforts lack depth and finesse, there's no denying the power of his story. Joyeux Noël shows us how enemies can join together to survive the worst elements of human nature. It's easy to wish that someone with greater artistic ambitions had tackled this event, but given how long this incredible story has been neglected by cinema, we should be thankful for this flawed film's naked sincerity.
In French and German with English subtitles. Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].