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In 1914, war began,
Embraced by most, except a few.
As nations called on every man,
The horror of it came in view.
The Scots, the Germans, and the French
Were fortified on Christmas Eve.
Each army huddled in its trench,
No reinforcements to relieve.
Then, lo, there rose a single voice,
A tenor on the German side,
Reminding them to still rejoice,
For Christ was born for all worldwide.
The Scots employed their instrument
To complement the brave recruit,
And everybody was content
To lend an ear instead of shoot.
The three commanders met that night,
To call a temporary truce,
To share champagne instead of fight,
To put their time to better use.
A Scottish priest performed a Mass
For every soldier, friend or foe,
And one attending German lass
Performed soprano in the snow.
Although the night soon ran its course,
The morning saw increased rapport.
They could not dole out death and force
On those they met the night before.
Instead, they gathered hand in hand,
The dead of every camp to bury,
And they transformed no man’s land
Into one large cemetery.
When shelling was to be dispersed,
The Germans warned their rival friend,
And when their places were reversed,
The Scots let courtesy extend.
Yet friendship was not meant to last,
For when superiors heard tell
Of what occurred, they were aghast
And punished all such personnel.
Though others thought their acts a shame,
The men who lived that silent night
Were proud to greet their foe by name
And share in peace on earth outright.

Time to kick off Christmas in July with Joyeux Noël, which is French for Merry Christmas.There aren’t many foreign-language films on my list, but this one has a unique blend of languages, since it presents an amazing event during World War I from the point of view of German, Scottish, and French soldiers. All three languages are spoken side by side, not only heightening the film’s realism but also allowing English, French, and German-speaking viewers to hear their own language a third of the time.

The film wonderfully humanizes its characters and doesn’t set out to cast any side as the villain. True, Austria-Hungary and Germany were the aggressors, but, unlike the Second World War, I don’t believe there was true evil fueling the conflict. World War I was mainly fought over border disputes and entangling alliances, and the soldiers in the trenches were present only out of duty to their nations, not malice toward the opposing side. Of course, war forces countries to inevitably demonize their enemies in order to give their troops the drive to fight (as is hauntingly illustrated by the film’s opening poem, as well as the bishop’s sermon at the end), but most of those on the ground on both sides were ordinary people, real people, family men.

The film doesn’t provide as much characterization for the soldiers as I would have liked, but perhaps that was intentional. The war had just begun and the men were just getting to know each other, whether as friends, as enemies, or as something in between. Benno Fürmann stands out the most as the German tenor Sprink, along with his lover Anna, played by Diane Kruger of National Treasure fame. Guillaume Canet, Gary Lewis, and Daniel Brühl are also marvelous as the French lieutenant, a Scottish priest, and the German lieutenant, respectively.

The film is replete with moments of touching beauty, of enemies slowly coming together to exchange gifts, of a lovely operatic rendition of Ave Maria that leaves the troops spellbound, of kindness being shown even when they know it should be forbidden. It speaks strongly of the unifying power of music, religion, uncommon decency, and coffee/tea. Little details, such as a Frenchman’s clock-related habits or the back-and-forth claiming of an itinerant cat, help bring the story to life. (By the way, much of this story was previously featured in the music video for Paul McCartney’s “Pipes of Peace” back in 1983. Here’s the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7ErrZ-ipoE)

There are several profanities and a brief but unnecessary sex scene, but, as far as violence, the film is thankfully restrained enough to be realistic without being gory. Overall, Joyeux Noël is one of the most inspiring Christmas films I’ve seen, even if the ending is less than happy. As the 100th anniversary of these events approaches at the end of this year, the film remains a timely illustration of Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Man He Killed,” which ends with “Yes; quaint and curious war is!/You shoot a fellow down/You’d treat, if met where any bar is,/Or help to half a crown.”

Best line: (Scottish Father Palmer) “Tonight, these men were drawn to that altar like it was a fire in the middle of winter. Even those who aren’t devout came to warm themselves.”

Artistry: 9
Characters/Actors: 9
Entertainment: 7
Visual Effects: 7
Originality: 8
Watchability: 6
Other (language, sex): -4
TOTAL: 42 out of 60

Next: #190 – Hello, Dolly

© 2014 S. G. Liput

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