Media The Christmas truce

Aided by journals, a film recreates a forgotten scrap of WWI sanity

If you’re going to make a picture called “Merry Christmas,” conventional knowledge would seem to suggest that it’s wisest to start with a fairly mild template — a kid who wants a BB gun, perhaps, or a fellow with some sort of cutting implement for hands — and keep a moderately safe distance from subjects like, oh, say, trench warfare in World War I. French director Christian Carion’s Joyeux Noël, however, dives right into that particular fray and comes out on the other side with one heck of a (mostly) true story, and an Oscar nomination to boot.

Based on historical accounts of World War I trench warfare, Joyeux Noël tells the story of British, French, and German soldiers who celebrated Christmas with a brief truce.

Tagged “The Story That History Forgot,” Joyeux Noël is based upon the remarkable events of December, 1914, that have come to be known collectively as “The Christmas Truce”: British, French, and German soldiers, stationed at a standoff in the trenches of Belgium, held an unauthorized Christmas Eve ceasefire, choosing to celebrate the season together by exchanging small gifts, singing carols, and living in peace for a few days, in place of shooting the blessed dickens out of one another.

The film, Carion’s second, is credited as a joint effort between France, Germany, England, Belgium, and Romania, though it was officially France’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film. The story employs French, Scottish, and German actors, and there are genuinely memorable performances here: Guillaume Canet (The Beach) as a kind but conflicted French general, Gary Lewis as a quiet, embattled Scottish priest, and — aided by the immense amount of screen time they’re given — Benno Fürmann and the winsomely angular Diane Kruger (she of clunkers Troy and National Treasure) as German lovers-cum-opera-singers, torn between love and duty. (Ain’t that always the way?)

While Noël’s characters are fictitious (a post-closing-credits disclaimer by Carion states as much), the specific events represented are largely defensible, culled from letters and written accounts of the time. For instance: There is, apparently, evidence to support the notion that the Germans put up Christmas trees and joined Scottish bagpipers in caroling. There may actually, as depicted, have been a friendly soccer match or two. And a bit of ridiculous business with a cat, which I dare not give away here, is said to be surprisingly accurate.

Joyeux Noël
Dir. & writ.: Christian Carion; feat. Diane Kruger, Benno Fürmann, Guillaume Canet, Dany Boon, Gary Lewis, Daniel Brühl (PG-13)

Amid this newfound levity, though, the reluctant soldiers battle the knowledge that, (1) the fighting will resume soon, and, (2) fraternizing with the enemy carries dire consequences, if discovered. This isn’t, incidentally, one of those flicks where the true protagonists have endearing, “humanizing” flaws; for the most part, there are clearly defined “good guys” and “bad guys,” to aid those keeping score.

Joyeux Noël is by no means a perfect film. It’s slow at times, seemingly rushed at others; it might take a bit of willingness to fully get into, and its morality and character development may seem simplistic to some. It is in some ways better than I expected (visually), while not as good in others (pacing). As a film, however, it accomplishes what it intended: It is fair to each of the countries involved, and it entertains, drawing a handful of good laughs and durable moments. But most vital to its cause, it eloquently argues the abject absurdity and inconsistency of war, in any era.

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