“Our artillery will shell you in 10 minutes, so I suggest you come shelter in my trench…”
There are two sides to every story. Apart from in Joyeux Noel where there are three sides. The Frenchmen, the Germans and the Scots. They never walk into a bar together though…
I’m sure we have all heard the heartwarming stories about opposing troops in World War I playing football together on Christmas day. I, for one, have never really thought of the logistics of that famous meeting however, or the emotional implications. It’s difficult to actualise something that has been immortalised in a sodding Sainsbury’s advert. Joyeux Noel does a wonderful job in bringing to life one of the most human stories in the history of humanity.
The most important thing when telling this tale is to ensure that all three sides are presented in a positive and warm manner. To have the Germans be in any way villainous would totally eschew the moral of this enchanting true story. On that day in 1914, the soldiers realised what they had probably suspected all along. The only thing making them enemies was the whims of men who had never seen a battlefield. The only difference between these men was their nationality. They loved and were loved. They played football. They drank wine.
The centrepiece of Joyeux Noel sees a Scots priest perform a mass on no mans land, attended by soldiers from all sides. They then join together to sing Christmas carols. If that isn’t the most Christmas moment in any Christmas film ever then I don’t know what is.
The story revolves around three lieutenants. Alex Ferns and Guillaume Canet are excellent but it is Daniel Bruhl as the German lieutenant Horstmayer who really steals the show. Hollywood came knocking for Bruhl in the grotesque shape of Quentin Tarantino shortly after this film and based on this performance it is easy to see why. Tarantino also pinched Diane Kruger from this film to star in Inglourious Basterds but she has little to do here besides look pretty and pretending to sing an opera.
The conclusion to the film is as chilling as it is sadly accurate and it brings to mind Joseph Heller’s World War II masterpiece Catch 22. In that book, there is a passage in which the hapless officer Clevinger is brought before a disciplinary committee. After a farcical hearing he muses that “not in all the facist tanks or planes or submarines… or among the grisly connivers in all the beer halls in Munich, were there men who hated him more than his own superiors”. Quite.