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Blogvent Day 10 – Joyeux Noel (2005,France)

10/12/2011

Director: Christian Carion          Starring: Diane Kruger, Gary Lewis, Benno Furmann, Guillaume Canet

If you were to base the significance of any conflict upon the number of movies made about it you would be forgiven for thinking the First World War was an insignificant footnote in global history compared to fighting the Nazis in the Second World War or even Vietnam, both of which have endless reels of film devoted to them. Off the top of my head the list of First World War movies I can come up with is rather short. All Quiet On The Western Front, Oh What A Lovely War and Kubrick’s superb Paths Of Glory are the only ones that spring immediately to mind and for a conflict that proved to be one of the bloodiest and most senseless in European history it seems horrednously under represented in the realms of cinema.

Carion’s multi-lingual, international production feels a little bit like an attempt to redress this balance somewhat. Focusing on a short stretch of the front, where French, Scottish and German troops are dug in yards apart, it tells the extraordinary and somewhat surreal story of the informal Christmas truce that was called between groups of troops, off their own backs, for the Christmas of 1914 which saw soldiers from both sides lay down their arms and celebrate Christmas together as comrades rather than sworn enemies.

It’s a project that could so easily degenerate into hapless sentimentalism but Carion manages to sidestep this almost entirely with his narrative pieced together from the converging stories of individuals from each of the camps. There aren’t many official records of what really happened between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the trenches in 1914 (the officers involved sensibly didn’t include such information in their reports) and so Carion has created a sort of patchwork quilt from details gleaned from the correspondence of the troops themselves, combining different events that would in reality have happened in different parts of the line into one story focusing on one set of characters. Some of the elements seem absolutely incredible, almost beyond belief (in the accompanying interview on the DVD Carion swears to the veracity, at least as far as his evidence shows, of these events).

Essentially it is a film about differences (or more properly a lack of differences). It opens with three young children reciting primary school verses. Each is from a different country (France, Germany and Britain) and each is singing a nursery rhyme style song or poem painting their rival nation as evil and worthy only of total annihilation. This, I think, is the forgotten aspect of the First World War. While we are all pretty much aware of the level of propaganda employed in the Second World War I think a lot of people don’t realise the extent to which it played a hand in the Great War. Here, it’s the breaking down of this indoctrination that is most important to the events that took place that Christmas.

The catalyst in the film for the realisation that maybe, just maybe, the men in the trench opposite aren’t really all that different is music. On Christmas Eve as the different squads of soldiers celebrate the festive season they find common ground in Christmas carols which leads them to the brave decision to step out of their trenches and reach their gentlemen’s agreement. Once this first step is taken the men find they have even more in common, even with the language barrier and the men who only hours before were engaged in the constant tit for tat of entrenched warfare find themselves sharing a drink and a smoke and a game of football with their foes. Ultimately they have all been brought together by the single unifying experience of living on a knife edge in the horror of the trenches.

The accusation at the heart of the film (much like Paths Of Glory) is that war, especially the Great War, is political. That the men in those muddy trenches were mere pawns being put through the meat grinder of that bloody conflict to satisfy the whims of the politicians and Generals safely ensconced miles behind the front lines. The confusion felt by the soldiers after they have experienced peaceful coexistence is enough to make them question why they are there in the first place and what exactly it is they are fighting for. The early enthusiasm they showed at the beginning of the film when they were off on a grand adventure that would “all be over by Christmas” gives way to a hatred of the political masters that are squandering their lives so worthlessly in endless futile engagements. Special venom is reserved for the role of the church and the Scottish Chaplain (played by one of my favourite actors, Gary Lewis) plays a vital role in highlighting this in the film. Villified for his participation in the Christmas ceasefire he is condemned by his Bishop as not being worthy of the Church, the same Bishop then going on to deliver a hate filled sermon about wielding the sword of God against the Godless Germans. It’s a fine moment in the film, if perhaps a little heavy handed and it clearly sets out Carion’s standpoint on the role of the Church in the atrocity of the Great War.

The film takes great pains to illustrate the power of fear and ignorance over people’s minds and actions and show that the best way to overcome these things is to question the status quo and to approach your fellow human beings with love and understanding, that if we do this then we will eliminate our need to fight each other. It’s a great message and surely the very embodiement of what we think of as the true spirit of Christmas?

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