Most war movies focus on the slaughter. They focus on the tragedy of war and the waste of human life. This is a defining feature of war, if not the feature, but at the same time it can grow tiring to see the dehumanization of war in film after film. “Joyeux Noël” manages to both show the horror of war as well as the efforts of soldiers to keep their humanity. It does so with elegance and beautiful visuals, as well as a splendid cast.
“Joyeux Noël” is the story of Scottish, French, and German troops in the first year of World War I. Despite the brutality of the fighting, some troops still believe that the war will be short, and that they can maybe even go home for Christmas. On Christmas Eve, a German tenor and his visiting wife sing to his fellow soldiers. After the Scottish troops join in with some bagpipe playing and the French soldiers applaud the tenor’s voice, the officers meet to declare a cease-fire. They then exchange yuletide greetings, as well as food and champagne. There is even a remarkable scene where a German lieutenant tells the French and Scottish soldiers that they are going to be bombed soon, and they go over to the German trenches to be saved. But this idyll cannot last.
Watching this movie at the IU Cinema brought home just how beautiful its visual style is. The lighting is warm and cozy when juxtaposed against the cold winter nights, emphasizing how human beings can band together to make the longest nights the brightest. The uniforms are also colorful and period accurate. Indeed, the whole film has a kind of old time glamour that works in its favor.
The performances are also excellent. Daniel Brühl plays the Jewish and humane Lieutenant Horstmayer very well, and his lines about how he will always remember this Christmas even though he does not celebrate it are very moving. Diane Kruger (who, like Brühl, was also in the entirely different war film “Inglourious Basterds”) shines as the wife of the German tenor. Ian Richardson (the star of the British “House Of Cards”) also has a good cameo as a malevolent bishop whose hate-filled sermon to new recruits drives home the fact that another truce like this will be increasingly unlikely. Guillaume Cane also gives an excellent performance as a French lieutenant desperate to know about his newborn child, who is trapped with his wife just outside of his trench.
When it was first released, “Joyeux Noël” was criticized by some for sentimentality. I can see why some would make that claim, but if you take a closer look at the film that criticism appears weaker. For example, the story of a young Scotsman driven nearly insane by the death of his brother does not get an ending that is either easy or happy. Only one battle is shown, but it is violent enough to show the desire for a respite from such carnage. There is constantly the sense that this peaceful understanding between soldiers of a similar rank cannot last. This is particularly evident when the truce on Christmas Eve is broken up by the sounds of artillery fire on other battlefields. Granted, the scene where they get invited into the German trenches is a bit far-fetched, and the film lacks the irony and profundity of a film like “Grand Illusion.” Still, a scene where a general mentions arresting a cat shows the Strangelovian humor and paranoia of the high command very well. There is also an incredibly moving scene where a group of soldiers, being sent to almost certain death on a new front, start humming a tune they learned from the other side. They may lose their lives, but they’ll keep their spirits.