Joyeux Noel is a fictional telling of one such truce. And as such it is wildly successful at simultaneously illustrating the amazing good and amazing stupidity of humans
At a battlefield near a French town, German, French and Scottish brigades are engaged in what has obviously been a long and bitter period of trench warfare, and no one has advanced very far at all, highlighted when the French try overrunning the German trench with the promise that a farm just outside of the town is 100 yards behind the German trench.
In fact, the three groups have been there so long that they have dead in no-man’s land or in opposing trenches that they’ve been unable to gather and bury.
The film is focused on a small handful of people. A couple of Scots: a stretcher bearer who was a Catholic priest before the war, and one of the members of his church who’s best friend and probable lover was shot during the French operation into the German trench.
Then there’s the French Lieutenant, whose father is the Major General in command of the region, but who also hasn’t seen or heard from his wife in months, and doesn’t know if she has given birth to their child yet or not, even though she’s just in the town on the other side of the German line.
And there’s a German singer and his girlfriend–he was called up to serve and is in the regiment in the trench, and his girlfriend has used her fame to convince the Crown Prince to let the singer come back to her to safety in town and to also perform for one night for the Crown Prince.
But the singer convinces his commanders to let he and his girlfriend go back to the trench to sing for the troops on Christmas Eve. In the process, all three sides end up sharing a 24-hour period where no shots were fired at each other, the Priest celebrated a mass with all of the troops from all sides, their dead were all gathered up and buried, and for a brief, shining moment, everyone came to realize that everyone else there was just as human as the next person.
But when letters get sent by the troops back to their families, they’re read by the respective commands, who then quickly learn what happened. Each side is accused of insubordination and consorting with the enemy, and consequences fly: the Scottish brigade is broken up, the individual troops sent to different units on the front, with the priest ordered back to his parish; the French brigade is sent to a different front, and the Germans are sent across Germany to the Russian front, without being allowed to stop and see family.
The film, for really being a pretty simple story, is just wonderful to watch. It’s one of those movies that has been shot beautifully, but doesn’t let that get in the way of the story it’s trying to tell. And the acting, while led by a group of actors who aren’t “A-listers” is all just spot-on: you can feel the fear and even hate while they’re shooting at each other, but then the conflict within each of them is palpable when they realize they can’t possibly go back to fighting each other after Christmas day, and yet knowing that their commanders will be angry at their lack of desire to follow orders.
It’s an incredibly powerful story, and had me tearing up several times, but also had me laughing when the Germans and then the French take turns hiding in each other’s bunkers when the Artillery opens up in planned attacks. You feel just how hopeless trench warfare was–since there was little motivation or success in driving your opponent out of their trench.
In spite of the roller coaster of emotion and the difficult nature of the topic, it still merits Four out of Five Stars. Very highly recommended for those interested in the period, or history buffs, or those who like a good people story.
See you tomorrow.