I only saw Joyeux Noël yesterday eventually. I loved it!
Of course it has its flaws (especially the music which doesn't goes well with the movie imo...) but overall what a great movie! I read many German critics and most of them are very good (not that i speak German this good but when it's written that's ok and i also got some help from someone...
I understand some of the critics but i think that many exagerate so much here. The fact that it's a taboo subject in France and that religion plays a good part in the film in a country where almost half the population don't believe in God or aren't really religious has a bit to do with it...They're very harsh with it for most of them. Or maybe they don't like the fact that it's an European co-profduction...
Here is the German official page: http://www.merrychristmas-derfilm.de/
The German trailer is the best imo.
And a page where you can see the international and the Australian trailers (i don't like them at all. they give such a wrong image of what the movie reralmly is...): http://www.comingsoon.net/films.php?id=10991
If you have the possibility, go see it. I think you won't regret it.
FRANCE 1914. A MOMENT OF HUMANITY THAT MADE HISTORY.
Merry Christmas (Joyeux Noël)
WITHOUT AN ENEMY THERE CAN BE NO WAR.
A film by CHRISTIAN CARION
Running time: 116 minutes
Release date: 15 December 2005
“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)
SYNOPSIS - Joyeux Noël
A bona-fide hit of the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, Joyeux Noël is a warming story about courage and dignity that touched three nations that went to war in 1914. On Christmas Eve in Northern France, officers and soldiers from Scotland, Germany and France, who fought each other from trenches barely 100 meters apart on a daily basis, put down their weapons and called a truce. It was an extraordinary act of human generosity and humility - and a true event.
The story follows a Scottish Anglican priest, Palmer (Gary Lewis) who volunteered to follow his young church aides; a prestigious Berlin Opera singer Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann) now fighting for his country, and the French Lieutenant Audebert (Guillaume Canet), who has had to leave his pregnant wife behind. All of them have family ties, home-front responsibilities or loved ones who have been abandoned as they heed the call to arms. Political leaders had promised the troops that the war would be resolved by Christmas. It is now December, the chill of winter has set in and everyone can sense this will be a long conflict.
When Christmas Eve comes, Sprink's lover Anna (Diane Kruger) conspires to arrange a recital for Prussian noblemen near the front line so they can be together. He takes her back to the trenches to sing for his comrades, and the Scots strike up the bagpipes as an accompaniment. Sprink places a Christmas tree atop the trench and climbs up himself, risking potential gunfire. No one fires, and soon sworn enemies have strayed into No Man's Land, a truce is arranged and for a brief time the Germans, Scots and French set aside thoughts of war to spend Christmas together sharing wine and food, playing football, exchanging photos and memories and taking time to bury the dead.
These men and their peers easily find a common ground that is dangerously subversive to their superiors. Where does the holiday spirit end and high treason begin?
Anchored by an excellent international cast, this profoundly emotive yet inspiring film is marbled with bittersweet humour, bold gestures and remarkable kindness. With a deep sense of compassion in its celebration of the way a shared humanity transcended the madness of war, Joyeux Noël is an elegant, European classic.
DIRECTOR'S NOTE BY CHRISTIAN CARION
Originally from the North of France, I grew up in one of the ten French territorial departments that for four years, between 1914 and 1918, was under German occupation. Naturally, this important period in History left its mark on the population and the region. I grew up with the memory of the Great War. It was something omnipresent, not merely honoured on those inescapable celebrations of Armistice, every November 11. Son of a farmer, I remember as a child how I would carry a shell that had come uncovered in our fields while we were ploughing the land. Even today, papers, various objects and rusted missiles become unearthed from time to time. These objects had belonged to soldiers who were wounded and sometimes buried on the spot.
In 1993, guided by some unseen force of chance, I discovered a book: Battles of Flanders and Artois 1914-1918, by Yves Buffetaut. As I was reading it, I came upon an extraordinary passage entitled “The Incredible Winter of 1914”. The author wrote about the fraternizing between the enemies, the episode of the German tenor applauded by the French soldiers, a soccer match, the exchange of letters, the Christmas trees, visiting each other's trenches... It really bowled me over. I called my future producer, Christophe Rossignon, to talk to him about it, and I sent him a synopsis. He found the subject magnificent. However, aware of its scope, Christophe advised me to arm myself: I hadn't even made a short film yet! After the success of my first feature-length film, THE GIRL FROM PARIS, Christophe encouraged me to focus on this project: JOYEUX NOËL. In 2002, I began with the most difficult task: writing about this incredible, but true story. My first undertaking was to research and find as much information as possible on the fraternizing, and to understand concretely what had happened. I came across a series of astounding news events in the British archives, for the most part, and later on in the French and German archives as well. Mostly professional historians frequent such places. With the help of Yves Buffetaut, I was able to access these documents. In France, the army is in charge of these files. And though they do not stop one from consulting them, they certainly don't advertise them either. This state of mind seemed like a direct link to the mentality that reigned during the war: during that period, photos taken of the soldiers fraternizing made front-page news in the English press while in France the pictures were requisitioned and destroyed! As for the German archives, it was not difficult to consult them as many are still held in France. This is a result of World War II. We should consider returning them one of these days.
It was really intimidating to write the story based on these facts. The events inspired characters who truly existed, as well as fictitious people I had to invent. For example there was Ponchel, the aide-de-camp. He was a Ch'timi (patois for a person from Northern France), like me. He was evocation of the French soldier whose house was located behind the German lines. Every evening he had to cross that zone through a breach so he could sleep with his wife and children before he went back to the French trenches early the next morning to fight the war!
There was also the German tenor who genuinely sang for the French soldiers one Christmas evening. This character was important to me because 90% of the fraternizing happened when people sang. Others listened, responded, applauded. I love the idea that culture, popular songs and music silenced the cannons. Obviously when one reads these stories, they really seem unbelievable. However, thousands of Christmas trees were sent to the German Front that Christmas of 1914. It was supposed to be the soldiers' “only one spent on the front”, and Kaiser William II felt that “even in times of war, values should be maintained”! The tricky part of writing the script was how to make the viewer believe that these incredible events were true. I also had to find a natural sequence that could lead to fraternizing that went on. That said, sometimes the harsh reality was too much, or too absurd. This was the case with the story of the cat who roamed from one trench to the other and in the film ended up being imprisoned. In reality, the tom cat was accused of spying and was arrested by the French army and then shot according to regulations! I wanted to show this in JOYEUX NOËL and filmed the cruel execution scene.
Many of the extras refused to be part of the crowd. Though I explained to them that this really happened during the war (and that they would only be shooting blanks), they would not give in. Their retort was, “People were crazy back then!” Finally, during the final cut, I decided not to show the execution scene. It was too much. The audience would have lost interest, never believing that such a thing happened. At risk of repeating myself, this really did happen! In August 2004, after having encountered some difficulties with the financing (that Christopher Rossignon was able to resolve), the shoot for JOYEUX NOËL began. First I filmed the war scene, camp by camp. This way the actors didn't encounter each other or they encountered each other in the fray. It was very stupid and in the canteen it was every trench to themselves. It was more of a habit rather than mean spiritedness. And then, very quickly, we got to the fraternizing scenes. That's when things really became interesting because between takes the German, Scottish and French actors were mixed up. That continued after the shoot. A family bond on the set was very much there after that. When things started to get rough, like when the shoot was postponed for several months because the French army refused authorization for us to create a no-man's land on the field, the actors showed their attachment to the project. But on the set their commitment was above and beyond the call of duty. Like me, they wanted recreate what had happened to these men as realistically as possible. It was a way of honouring those soldiers' memory.
In fact Gary Lewis and Dany Boon had relatives who had fought in the War of 1914. I am really proud to have brought them together with Guillaume Canet, Daniel Brühl, Diane Krüger, Alex Ferns and Benno Fürmann. They also acted in their native tongue. I wanted to make sure that all their characters were likeable whatever their nationality. I felt that the success of this film really depended on that aspect. In reality the border of no-man's land was not between the camps, it was between those who fought the war and those who wanted the war to happen. That's why the film has more than a European dimension for me. It has a humanistic dimension. In my opinion, anyone on the planet would be touched by the fraternizing that went on, not just the German, English and French. That's why I'd like to show the film in a country that is at war. All of us who made JOYEUX NOËL were thinking about the soldiers who courageously fraternized. At the time, they were considered cowards. For me, they were neither heroes or cowards. They were merely men who accomplished something incredibly human. If JOYEUX NOËL is a success, which I hope is the case, and it pays homage to the memory of these soldiers, that will be my greatest reward.
THE CONTEXT: WORLD WAR I
The 20th Century was born on the 3rd of August 1914 when Europe's old colonial powers decided, without knowing it, to commit suicide. Germany, France, Great-Britain and Russia are the major powers of these first days of the twentieth century. But these powers have more and more friction points, as their interests converge. Britannia rules the waves and cannot abide any interference in that domain. When Germany begins to build up its fleet, merchant and military, at the start of the 20th Century, Britain turns to France which is waiting to take revenge against the Germans since the 1871 war...
From then on the pistol is cocked. Only a spark is needed (the assassination by a young extremist of an Austrian archduke incapable of ruling) to ignite all of Europe and then the rest of the world. And in fact, this war was only meant to last a few months, every headquarter was convinced of it.
Germany counts on her numerical supremacy and speed to destabilize the French and British armies. That plan only just fails and the armies resign themselves to putting their rifles to one side and pick up shovels instead to dig trenches. By the end of September, a border in all but name stretches from Oostende to Basel. At the end of 1914, the respective armies will have had more losses than for the rest of the whole war. They do not know that this conflict will last for four years, without any real change happening along the frontline.
And this conflict will involve over thirty five nations and make France the only country in the world to host cemeteries of so many different nationalities... Christmas 1914 will have been a particular moment in this war. It constitutes a kind of pause. It is also the end of a first part, one where each and every man believed he would go home to his family for Christmas. The conflict is stuck and headquarters on all sides begin to develop deadlier war tactics. But before falling into the horror, the soldiers allow themselves, at some places on the front, an exceptional Christmas, full of humanity, fraternity...
We fought for four years from 1914 to 1918. The debate about that war still rages on eighty years later... First we tried to justify that the enemy was responsible, and then to foist the shame on the political leaders. Or perhaps the butchery happened because of incompetent and glory-seeking military leaders. Then there was the tragedy of the soldiers who lived through the horror. They were victims of History. On the eve, hadn't they declared war on the war? But that didn't stop them from participating and killing in large numbers. How does one choose between enthusiasm, consent, coercion?
Let's review the events. In 1914, after several months of marching and counter-marching, the soldiers found themselves brusquely and cruelly immobilized in make-shift trenches. Suddenly the enemy took on a form. He had a face, sometimes a first name. The enemy trenches were often very close, six meters and sometimes even four meters. These enemies were men, like you and I. Whenever there was the least break, they would sing, drink and laugh...
During these moments, they would send each other chocolate, cigarettes. Yes, fraternizing happened on Christmas 1914 and Easter 1915. It was the first stirrings, a way to take advantage of the lull in the combat. A muffled cry for peace... Perhaps... Years passed... Hearts and bodies harden... And when there was more fraternizing, specifically with the Russians after the fall of the Czar in February 1917, this time it wasn't merely a call for peace, but a call for Revolution.
To be published: Frères des tranchées, a collection of work edited by Marc Ferro with Remy Cazals, Olaf Muëller, Malcolm Brown (Editions Perrin, 2005) . Marc Ferro is co-director of the Annales, director of research at l'EHESS (School of Higher Studies for the Social Sciences), a specialist in Word War One, the Russian Revolution and the history of cinema. He has also directed and hosted Histoires parallèles a program for the television channel Arte. Recognized the world over, he came to public attention with his major biographies of Nicholas II and Pétain, his studies on the Russian Revolution and of course his reflections and writings on history and colonization.
Anna Sörensen (Diane Krüger)
A Danish Soprano, but more than anything, a woman who will do everything to snatch the man she loves, Nikolaus Sprink, away from the war.
Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann)
A tenor with a magnificent voice, a regular German soldier at the start of the war, who will give his most beautiful recital on Christmas Eve 1914, on No Man's Land.
Audebert (Guillaume Canet)
A French lieutenant who hides his grief, and fear, from his men who expect everything from him.
Palmer (Gary Lewis)
An Anglican priest who will give his most beautiful Mass on Christmas Eve 1914, on No Man's Land.
Ponchel (Dany Boon)
A barber haunted by the thought of his mother living in a German occupied town a mile away from the frontline.
Horstmayer (Daniel Brühl)
A German Lieutenant raised for war who, thrown off balance by his men's desire for peace, will change.
The French General (Bernard Le Coq)
A man whose profession is war and who will have to deal with those men who have “erred”, including his son, Lieutenant Audebert.
Jonathan (Steven Robertson)
Overwhelmed with grief and locked away in an immense solitude, he could not fraternize on No Man's Land with his companions.
Gordon (Alex Ferns)
As an officer, he tries to control, justify and normalize the fraternizing. But in his heart, he has a secret fascination for the incredible outpouring of humanity.
Gueusselin (Lucas Belvaux)
A French soldier who is afraid of nothing and has nothing to lose from fighting. However, he will be truly touched by this Christmas night.
SELECTED BIOGRAPHIES AND FILMOGRAPHIES
COPYING BEETHOVEN by Agnieszka Holland
FRANKIE by Fabienne Berthaud
NATIONAL TREASURE by Jon Turteltaub
TROY by Wolfgang Petersen
WICKER PARK by Paul McGuigan
MICHEL VAILLANT by Louis-Pascal Couvelaire
MON IDOLE/WHATEVER YOU SAY by Guillaume Canet
KINGDOM IN TWILIGHT by Uli Edel
WOLFSBURG by Philipp Gerber
MY HOUSE IN UMBRIA by Richard Loncraine
THE SIN EATER by Brian Helgeland
NAKED by Doris Dörrie
FRIENDS by Martin Eigler
THE WARRIOR AND THE EMPRESS by Tom Tykwer
L'ENFER (HELL) by Danis Tanovic
NARCO by Tristan Aurouet and Gilles Lellouche
LOVE ME IF YOU DARE by Yann Samuell
WHATEVER YOU SAY by Guillaume Canet
THE DAY THE PONIES COME BACK by Jerry Schtazberg
LA FIDÉLITÉ by Andrzej Zulawski
THE BEACH by Danny Boyle
CARGO by Clive Gordon
NÆSLAND by Friorik Por Frioriksson
GANGS OF NEW YORK by Martin Scorsese
BILLY ELLIOT by Stephen Daldry
ORPHANS by Peter Mullan
MY NAME IS JOE by Ken Loach
LA BOULETTE by Francis Veber
PÉDALE DURE by Gabriel Aghion
LE DÉMÉNAGEMENT by Olivier Doran
LE GRAND BLANC DE LAMBARÉNE by Bassek Ba Khobio
CARGO by Clive Gordon
LADIES IN LAVENDER by Charles Dance
THE EDUKATORS by Hans Weingartner
LOVE IN THOUGHTS by Achim von Borries
GOODBYE LENIN! by Wolfgang Becker
THE WHITE SOUND by Hans Weingartner
MAKING WAVES (TV series)
MAN DANCIN' by Norman Stone
THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS by Stephen Hopkins
Bernard Le Coq
CACHÉ by Mikaël Haneke
LA DEMOISELLES D'HONNEUR by Claude Chabrol
THE FLOWER OF EVIL by Claude Chabrol
NEAREST TO HEAVEN by Tonie Marshall
AN AMAZING COUPLE by Lucas Belvaux
ON THE RUN by Lucas Belvaux
AFTER THE LIFE by Lucas Belvaux
MADAME BOVARY by Claude Chabrol
POULET AU VINAIGRE by Claude Chabrol
KINGDOM OF HEAVEN by Ridley Scott
INSIDE I'M DANCING (RONY O'SHEA WAS HERE) by Damien O'Donnell
Christian Carion, Director
FEATURE FILMS (writer and director):
2001 THE GIRL FROM PARIS
SHORT FILMS (as writer and director):
1998 MONSIEUR LE DÉPUTÉ
1997 LE CHÂTEAU D'EAU
1994 DOUCEMENT LES VIOLONS!
Christophe Rossignon has produced from 1990 to 1991 over ten short films, including those from Mathieu Kassovitz and Tran Anh Hung, before producing their first feature films, since 1992, (CAFÉ AU LAIT, THE HATE, ASSASSIN(S) and THE SCENT OF THE GREEN PAPAYA, CYCLO, THE VERTICAL RAY OF THE SUN) within the production company, Lazennec. Since the end of 1999, he produces within his own structure Nord-Ouest Production, several feature films (A GIRL FROM PARIS by Christian Carion, IRREVERSIBLE by Gaspar Noé, LOVE ME IFYOU DARE by Yann Samuell, A SIGHT FOR SORE EYES by Gilles Bourdos, THE LIGHT by Philippe Lioret).
Most of the fraternizing that took place in 1914 came about through music and song. Naturally music plays a key role in the film with Nikolaus and Anna singing. But also the soldiers sing their popular songs. The bagpipe and the harmonica meld nicely on the soundtrack with the London Symphony Orchestra's instrumentals directed by the composer Philippe Rombi.
PHILIPPE ROMBI, COMPOSER
MENSONGES ET TRAHISONS by Laurent Tirard
5x2 by François Ozon
LOOK AT ME by Agnès Jaoui
LE RÔLE DE SA VIE by François Favrat
LOVE ME IF YOU DARE by Yann Samuell
LE COÛT DE LA VIE by Philippe le Guay
UNE EMPLOYÉE MODÈLE by Jacques Otmezguine
SWIMMING POOL by François Ozon
THE GIRL FROM PARIS by Christian Carion
OUI, MAIS... by Yves Lavandier
PARIS DEAUVILLE (telefilm) by Isabelle Broué
UNDER THE SAND by François Ozon
CRIMINAL LOVERS by François Ozon
(the voice of Anna Sorensen in Joyeux Noël)
She is France's leading international soprano. A great favourite in her native country, she is equally acclaimed in Vienna, New York, London and Japan. Renowned not only for her astonishing high coloratura voice but for her exceptional gifts as an actress, her unique combination of talents makes her one of opera's leading ambassadors. Natalie Dessay is an exclusive Virgin Classics artist. Her biggest roles include:
La Reine de la Nuit (Mozart: La Flûte Enchantée)
Zerbinetta (Richard Strauss: Ariane à Naxos)
Ophélie (Ambroise Thomas: Hamlet)
Olympia (Offenbach: les Contes d'Hoffmann)
Lucia di Lammermoor (Donizetti )
La Sonnambula (Bellini)
(the voice of Nikolaus Sprink in Joyeux Noël)
He is the rising star of the opera world. Wherever he sings, the beauty and warmth of his voice and his striking engagement in his roles combine with his natural charisma to overwhelm his audience. Paris, London, New York, Vienna and Berlin have acclaimed him in some of the greatest tenor roles as he follows in the footsteps of his mentor Placido Domingo. Rolando Villazon is an exclusive Virgin Classics artist. His biggest roles include:
Roméo (Gounod: Roméo et Juliette)
Des Grieux (Massenet: Manon)
Hoffmann (Offenbach: Les Contes d'Hoffmann)
Don José (Bizet: Carmen)
Alfredo (Verdi: La Traviata)
Nemorino (Donizetti: L'Elixir d'Amour)
Le Duc (Verdi: Rigoletto)
Anna Sörensen Diane Krüger
Songs performed by Nathalie Dessay
Nikolaus Sprink Benno Fürmann
Songs performed by Rolando Villazon
Audebert Guillaume Canet
Palmer Gary Lewis
Ponchel Danny Boon
Horstmayer Daniel Brühl
Gordon Alex Ferns
Jonathan Steven Robertson
Gueusselin Lucas Belvaux
The General Bernard Le Coq
Bishop Ian Richardson
Jörg Frank Witter
Le Kronprinz Thomas Schmauser
Zimmermann Joachim Bissmeier
William Robin Laing
La Châtelaine Suzanne Flon
Le Châtelain Michel Serrault
Original Music Philippe Rombi
Soundtrack available through Virgin Classics
Written and directed by: Christian Carion
Produced by: Christophe Rossignon
Associate producer :Philip Boëffard
A co-production France/Germany/Great Britian/Belgium/Romania
Between Nord-Ouest Production
Senator Film Produktion
Media pro Pictures
and TF1 Films Production
Productions de La Guéville
with the participation of Canal +
The Région Nord Pas de Calais
with the support of The Centre National de la Cinématographie
The Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg
The Tax Shelter du gouvernement fédéral de Belgique
In association with: Soficinéma
International financing: Daniel Marquet
International Co-production Producers: Christopher Borgmann
Line Producer: Eve Machuel
Production Manager: Stéphane Riga
Director assistant: Philippe Larue
DOP: Walther Vanden Ende
Production Designer: Jean-Michel Simonet
Costumes Designer: Alison Forbes-Meyler
Editor: Andrea Sedlackova
Sound Designer: Pierre Mertens
Casting: Susie Figgis - Sabine Schroth
Stills photographer: Jean-Claude Lother
French distribution: UGC Distribution
International sales: Films Distribution
The Washington Post
Saturday 25 December 2004
Remembering a Victory For Human Kindness: WWI's Puzzling, Poignant Christmas Truce
By David Brown
Nobody knows where the Christmas Truce of 1914 began. Nor is it certain, even today, whether the truce began in one spot and spread, or broke out simultaneously in many places, the convergent evolution of numberless human hearts.
What is known is that 90 years ago today - four months into what would eventually be called World War I - thousands of British, French and Belgian soldiers spent a cold, clear, beautiful Christmas mingling with their German enemies along the Western Front.
The mysterious beginnings are fortunate. For want of the name of the first person (probably German) who proposed fraternization, or the place where it occurred (probably somewhere in Flanders), the Christmas Truce has acquired the aura of a miracle. In lacking a hero or sacred site, it has kept a single emotion at its core - the desire for peace of the most literal and personal kind.
It began in most places with nighttime singing from the trenches, was followed by shouted overtures and then forays between the lines by a few brave men. There followed, in daylight, a burying of the dead that had lain for weeks on the denuded ground called no man's land. After that, large numbers of soldiers poured over the front lip of the trench.
Throughout the day they exchanged food, tobacco and, in a few places, alcohol. Some chatted, usually in English, a language enough German enlistees spoke to make small talk possible. In several places, they kicked around a soccer ball, or a stuffed bag functioning as one, although contrary to legend there appears to have been no official, scored matches.
Mostly, the soldiers survived, which is what they wanted from the day. They did not shoot each other.
Almost everywhere the truce was observed, it actually began on Christmas Eve, the high point of the season for the Germans. In many places, it lasted through Boxing Day, the day after Christmas observed by the English as a holiday. In a few parts of the line, hostilities didn't recommence until after New Year's Day, a holiday with special meaning for Scots and, to a lesser extent, the French.
War did resume, though. It was a truce, not a peace. What followed was misery, waste, loss and degradation on a scale that is difficult to imagine.
By the end of World War I in November 1918, the dead numbered: 1 million soldiers from the British Empire, 2 million Germans, 1.7 million French, 1.5 million soldiers of the Hapsburg Empire, 1.7 million Russians, 460,000 Italians, hundreds of thousands of Turks, and 50,000 Americans. The political and territorial consequences were numerous and complicated. The certain one is that the Great War did not end war, but instead laid the foundations for another one a generation later.
Against that background, the Christmas Truce of 1914 stands out with particular poignancy. While there had been truces for religious and secular holidays since classical times, the events that occurred 90 years ago this week were a spontaneous, unled cry for sanity before the advent of industrialized war.
"It is the last expression of that 19th-century world of manners and morals, where the opponent was a gentleman," says Modris Eksteins, a cultural historian at the University of Toronto, who has written on the truce. "As the war goes on, the enemy becomes increasingly abstract. You don't exchange courtesies with an abstraction."
There were a few brief, scattered truces in 1915, and virtually none thereafter. The reason was not simply that commanders were on the lookout. The soldiers themselves had become emotionally hardened by years of fighting.
"The ones who survived, who lived to see other Christmases in the war, themselves expressed amazement that this had occurred," Eksteins said. "The emotions had changed to such a degree that the sort of humanity seen in Christmas 1914 seemed inconceivable."
What's curious, though, is that in some respects the Christmas Truce is now moving toward us, not away.
In both Germany and France, where the truce was largely unknown to two generations, it is being studied and celebrated.
A book published in 2003, "The Small Peace in the Great War," is the first to fully exploit German source material on the truce, including previously undiscovered diaries and letters. A French production company has made a feature-length film, "Joyeux Noel," that depicts the events. It will be released next year.
Last Sunday, two soccer teams whose members included people from the nations whose soldiers faced each other 90 years ago met in Neuville-Saint-Vaast, a village 100 miles north of Paris. They played a match that commemorated the soccer-playing in the Christmas Truce.
An all-star team of retired French players, Varietes Club de France, beat the international team, which called itself the Selection of Fraternity, 5-2 before 2,000 spectators. It was a clear day with the temperature hovering at the freezing point, like 90 years ago.
The game was held to raise money for a monument to the Christmas Truce. The village was chosen because it was where French soldier Louis Barthas, who proposed such a monument in a famous postwar memoir, was serving in December 1914.
"I am very touched by this idea," says Christian Carion, the writer and director of "Joyeux Noel," who organized the event. "Because on the Earth there is no monument to fraternization. There is always a monument for victory. And where there is a victory there is a defeat. But a monument about fraternization - there is not one anywhere."
It's an assertion difficult to prove. But even if there is, somewhere, a monument to making unapproved peace with the enemy, it's hard to believe the world couldn't use a second one.
Hold Your Fire
It appears there are no surviving participants of the Christmas Truce among the roughly 100 living veterans of World War I.
There is at least one man alive who witnessed it from a distance. He heard the silence.
Alfred Anderson was a "territorial" - the British equivalent of a national guardsman - serving in the 5th Battalion of the Scottish Black Watch Regiment in France. On Christmas he was "in reserve," behind the front lines, part of a complicated rotation that limited soldiers' time in the front-line trenches to three to seven days.
"It was very cold and very still. He said he could hear these voices shouting, carried over on the night air. What he could hear was total stillness, which he found very eerie," says Richard van Emden, an English television producer and historian who has interviewed him.
Anderson, who was wounded by an artillery shell in 1916 and discharged, is now 108. He worked as a joiner in a carpentry shop for much of his life. Today he lives by himself in a village near Perth, Scotland. "He is incredibly fit. If you met him you'd think he was about 85," van Emden says.
Also in uniform in December 1914 was Maurice Floquet, who turns 111 today and is the oldest living French veteran of World War I. He was on the Western Front in Belgium, but his part of the line did not fraternize with the Germans. What he chiefly remembers of Christmas is the menu: bread, soup, a few dates, and a bottle of red wine split among four soldiers. He was wounded twice in 1915 and discharged. He worked for many years as an auto mechanic.
In a brief interview conducted Wednesday via fax machine through a translator, Floquet said he did not learn of the truce until many years after the war.
"Such a thing could not be told to the soldiers, for how would they pursue the war if they knew?" he said from his home in a village near the Cote d'Azur. Recent research suggests that in 1914 at least 100,000 people participated in the Christmas Truce, directly or indirectly.
Since the start of war in August of that year, German troops had advanced west across northern France and Belgium, expecting to be victorious in six weeks. But they failed to reach Paris and by late September had withdrawn from some of the captured territory and began to dig trenches.
The trench line of the Western Front, still under construction at the end of the year, eventually snaked 475 miles from the North Sea to the border of Switzerland.
Two months of fighting in Belgium that became known as the First Battle of Ypres ended in late November. Sniping and scattered efforts to capture enemy trenches continued.
Historians believe that many conditions came together in December to make the truce possible.
Losses since the start of the war were already huge. According to historian John Keegan, the French dead numbered about 306,000 (including 45,000 teenagers). The Germans had lost 241,000, and the Belgians and British each about 30,000.
Except for some Indian troops in the British Expeditionary Force, virtually all combatants came from countries where Christmas was widely celebrated. On the German side, many units were from Saxony and Bavaria, and shared Roman Catholicism with their French and Belgian foes. (German troops from those regions, at least by reputation, were also more open to breaches of military discipline than the soon-to-arrive Prussians.)
Pope Benedict XV, who took office in August, had called for a Christmas truce, which was officially rejected. In France, a prominent bishop called for peace and met with the republic's president, Raymond Poincare.
"This visit is very unusual," says Pierre Miquel, a historian of World War I and retired professor at the Sorbonne. "The cardinal immediately had to say that nobody in the clergy can speak for a political purpose."
Nevertheless, both peace and Christmas celebration were in the air. The German government had sent thousands of small Christmas trees, and candles for them, to the front. On the British side, military shipments were suspended for 24 hours so that 355,000 brass boxes embossed with the profile of Princess Mary, the king's daughter, and containing a pipe and tobacco products, or candy, could be delivered.
The greatest incentive, though, was the simple misery of the moment - almost continuous rain, foul and muddy trenches, daily killing, and dead bodies in view.
"You couldn't bury the dead because if you tried, they'd shoot you," says Michael Juergs, former editor of Stern magazine and the author of "The Small Peace in the Great War." "So you always had to look on the no man's land and you can see your own future, which is to lay dead there."
Merging the Lines
The history of the Christmas Truce is essentially a compendium of anecdotes gleaned from letters, diaries, oral memories, and, to a lesser extent, official military records. The most complete accounts in English are "Christmas Truce" (1984), written by British authors Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton, and "Silent Night" (2001) by Stanley Weintraub, an American. Juergs's book has not been translated from German.
A few generalizations are possible.
Fraternization was much more common in the British sector than in the French or Belgian, although contrary to some early reports, it occurred in the latter two, as well. The initiative appears to have been taken most often by the German side. The closeness of trenches - in some cases only 100 feet - allowed gradual escalation of contact. The fact that most troops knew a repertoire of secular and religious songs - including some in their enemy's language or in Latin - was very helpful. Cigarettes and cigars were the first items to be exchanged in the initial contacts between enemy troops; it may have been tobacco's finest hour.
In most places, commissioned officers followed the lead of enlisted men, although there were exceptions where the officers were out front. One was Lt. Kurt Zemisch, a schoolteacher who spoke French and English and was serving in a Saxon regiment. His account is in a multivolume diary found in an attic in the 1990s by his elderly son. The entries were in an archaic form of shorthand that Rudolf Zemisch had to teach himself before he could read what his father had written.
"I have ordered my troops that, if at all avoidable, no shot shall be fired from our side either today on Christmas Eve or on the two pursuant Christmas holidays... We placed even more candles than before on our kilometer-long trench, as well as Christmas trees. It was the purest illumination - the British expressed their joy through whistles and clapping. Like most people, I spent the whole night awake."
On Christmas Day near the village of Fromelles, members of the 6th Battalion of the Gordon Highlander Regiment met their German enemies in a 60-yard-wide no man's land and together buried about 100 bodies. A service of prayers and the 23rd Psalm was arranged.
"They were read first in English by our Padre and then in German by a boy who was studying for the ministry," a 19-year-old second lieutenant named Arthur Pelham Burn wrote to a friend. "The Germans formed up on one side, the English on the other, the officers standing in front, every head bared. Yes, I think it was a sight one will never see again."
An English captain, RJ Armes, wrote: "At times we heard the guns in the distance and an occasional rifle shot. I can hear them now, but about us is absolute quiet. I allowed one or two men to go out and meet a German halfway. They exchanged cigars or smokes, and talked."
According to various accounts, there was at least one pig-roast, at least one session of hair-cutting (with payment in cigarettes), several kick-abouts with soccer balls, and innumerable exchanges of food and souvenirs such as buttons and hats. At one place on the French line, the Germans carried a drunk French soldier back "as far as the limit of our barbed wire, where we recovered him," wrote soldier Charles Toussaint.
It didn't work everywhere. There is evidence that in at least two places, soldiers attempting to fraternize were shot by opposing forces. Sometimes this was followed by apologies.
Eventually, the Christmas Truce ended and its participants went back to war.
International Herald Tribune
Silent night in wartime
By Joan Dupont
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 15, 2005
PARIS. There has been scant reason to celebrate World War I, four years of agony clinched with a treaty that humiliated Germany, inciting Hitler's ascension and a second world war even more horrific. Christian Carion's "Joyeux Noël" (Merry Christmas, Frohe Weihnachten) celebrates a historic moment of fraternity between French, German and British troops on Christmas Eve 1914.
The war was still young, but the strain of the trenches had already begun to take a toll on the soldiers' morale. "World War I was devastating, but it was also the birth of today's world," Carion says. "Russia wouldn't have turned communist if the czar's troops had been in Moscow instead of on the front, and America wouldn't have the power it has today had it not intervened in 1917."
Carion's story of solidarity found resonance at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was screened out of competition. "It was magical," the director recalled. "Audiences applauded during the screening just at the moment the soldiers on screen left their trenches to wish each other Merry Christmas."
The success snowballed. "Joyeux Noël" sold worldwide and was picked up by Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. "Michael said, 'I'm buying your movie because it touches me - and because we are at war."'
"Joyeux Noël," just released in France, is coming out across Europe before Christmas and has been selected as France's entry in the Academy Awards' foreign-language category. But French critics have already taken aim, carping on the old-fashioned look of the movie and its emotional pitch.
The director admits that he is an emotional person, moved to tears by some of the stories he wrote into the script. "I've not made a documentary, but a feature film," he said, "and I worked hard to write a script with credible, fleshed-out characters; each has his story."
This is not a movie that avoids clichés, starting with the poster of officers clasping hands and including scenes of soldiers trading chocolate, cigarettes and confidences to the strains of "Silent Night."
"The sight of enemies embracing has always moved me," the director said, "like with tennis champions - they've been killing each other for hours, then they shake hands."
"Joyeux Noël" was filmed in Romania in French, German and English - the original languages of the actors - and is being released in all three languages. The international cast includes Guillaume Canet, Benno Fürmann, Gary Lewis, Dany Boon and Daniel Brühl.
It's an ensemble piece without a starring role, unless it is that of the German actress Diane Krüger, the sole woman, as a Danish soprano who rejoins her lover, a Berlin opera tenor played by Fürmann, on the front. They sing Christmas carols - actually performed by the French soprano Natalie Dessay and the Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón - in the no man's land between the trenches. There, an Anglican priest and his young Scot stretcher-bearer meet a French lieutenant and the German tenor.
Symphony music - and bagpipes - suffuse each dramatic episode. The score is by Philippe Rombi and includes "L'Hymne des Fraternisés" (I'm Dreaming of Home), written to a poem by Lori Barth.
"The story about the German tenor is based on the real story of an opera singer who came to cheer the troops on Christmas Eve and was recognized by a French soldier," Carion said.
The director, 42, has made only one other feature, "Une Hirondelle A Fait le Printemps" (One Swallow Brought the Spring). He wanted to make "Joyeux Noël" 14 years ago, when he discovered that documents of the multiple cases of fraternization had been destroyed by the French Army.
"They wanted to stifle the incidents and the memory of this historic moment, which made me even more determined to do the film," he said, "but I had never directed a movie, so I had to start with short films. The success of my first feature gave me, and my producer, confidence."
Carion was born and reared in the region near Cambrai, a border area that had been hard hit by the battles of World War I, which wreaked devastation on a generation, leaving France with miles of graves, wards of wounded veterans, old maids, young widows.
"Our houses were built on the cheap," he said, "because France was ruined, and we had not a stick of furniture from before 1914. Europe committed suicide with that war."
These painful times have been explored in some famous films: Lewis Milestone's "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930), Jean Renoir's "La Grande Illusion" (1937) and Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory" (1957). More recently, François Dupeyron and Jean Pierre-Jeunet have made films set during and after the war.
"My movie starts where 'Paths of Glory' ends - on the scene of the German woman singing to French troops," Carion said. "'La Grande Illusion' is a great film on the class system. Renoir's cinema is my family."
A farmer's son, Carion calls the war the story of his childhood, although World War I ended more than 40 years before he was born. "As kids, we found mortar shells, rusted bayonets, medals and even papers in the fields. The British Army buried their dead wherever they were felled; that piece of earth became their earth. The graves were in the way of our tractors. My father told me to work around the graves because the British had come to France to fight for us."
The director has been touring with the movie, showing it in strategic cities like Verdun and Strasbourg. "Verdun is an amazing place, a temple of memory - even the children there know about the war. We had to open up three movie houses to pack in audiences."
Carion's Christmas story does not end happily. Punishment is visited on the troops by their authorities - mutinous soldiers were considered less dangerous that those who fraternized. German soldiers who took part in the Christmas Eve celebration were packed off in a train headed for the front, to be killed by a bullet or by the cold.
"You can send people off to die at Verdun or on the Russian front, but you can't keep them from their memories of this night," Carion said. "The memory won't die. The music won't die. World War II was a different story; we were fighting Nazism. Yet even then, there were stories of Russians and Germans banding together in Stalingrad."
"The closer men were, the more cramped their quarters - the trenches were only yards away from each other - the more fraternization took place. Today, missiles make war."
Carion has problems with Jeunet's "Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles" (2004), adapted from Sébastien Japrisot's novel. "What was hardly credible in the book is even less so in the film, and I don't like the grandiloquence or aesthetic choices - I don't understand them. I don't think that a film's form should overwhelm the material.
"Roman Polanski was accused of classicism in 'The Pianist,' and he reacted, saying that when you have a story like 'The Pianist,' you don't need to turn somersaults.
"I agree: No fireworks, no somersaults were needed to tell this story."
The Hollywood Reporter
May 16, 2005
Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas)
By Ray Bennett
It is odd to think that a relative handful of British, French and German soldiers on the front lines of World War I could have foreseen the harmony between those three countries that would only be achieved toward the end of the 20th century.
On Christmas Eve 1914, officers and soldiers who slaughtered each other from trenches barely 100 kilometers apart on a daily basis, put down their weapons to share wine and food, exchange photographs and memories, and play a game of soccer in the snow.
It was an extraordinary act of human generosity and humility although later the men's superior officers would regard it as fraternizing with the enemy and make them pay for it.
With a cast of Scottish, German and French actors all speaking their own language, writer-director Christian Carion has fashioned a deeply moving and uplifting piece that should find appreciative audiences everywhere.
That is not to say the film is overly sentimental, only that when war-torn men facing the darkest hell imaginable join to shake hands and smile and sing to the plangent accompaniment of bagpipes, only the sternest eye will remain dry.
Stories from war are often bizarre, and World War I seemed to offer the strangest. Carion's screenplay swiftly sketches the characters who soon become fully formed. There are scenes of great bravery, simple decency and extraordinary humor.
On the German side, there's a famous tenor named Sprink (Benno Furmann) who is called up to serve as a private. His partner, Anna Sorensen (Diane Kruger), conspires to arrange a recital for a Prussian nobleman near the front line so they can be together.
On the British side, there are two brothers Jonathan (Steven Robertson) and William (Robin Laing) who rush to sign up for war, accompanied to their surprise by their local priest, Palmer (Gary Lewis), who registers as stretcher bearer.
The French are led by a talented lieutenant named Audebert (Guillaume Canet) whose superior officer is his father, General Francais (Bernard Le Coq) and whose pregnant wife is at home behind enemy lines.
All three military services send booze and trinkets to their men at the front to give them a forlorn sort of Christmas. The Germans send out 100,000 Christmas trees complete with lights and tinsel.
Palmer starts things off by playing the bagpipes with the Scots joining him in song. Then Sprink, who has taken Sorensen to the trenches to sing for his fellows, responds with the carol "Silent Night," and Palmer accompanies him. Palmer follows with "O Come All Ye Faithful," which Sprink starts to sing and, placing a Christmas tree atop the trench, he climbs up himself risking potential gunfire.
No one fires, and soon the trench is alight with Christmas trees as men on all sides climb out to meet and greet each other. The episode was briefly but brilliantly depicted in Richard Attenborough's 1969 epic "Oh What a Lovely War!" and Carion's film, beautifully shot and acted, fleshes out the story to make it ever more memorable.
JOYEUX NOEL (MERRY CHRISTMAS)
Credits: Director/screenwriter: Christian Carion; Producer: Christophe Rossignon; Cinematographer: Walther Vanden Ende; Production designer: Jean-Michel Simonet; Editor: Andrea Sedlackova; Music: Philippe Rombi. Cast: Anna Sorensen: Diane Kruger; Nikolaus Sprink: Benno Furmann; Audebert: Guillaume Canet; Palmer: Gary Lewis; Ponchel: Danny Boon; Horstmayer: Daniel Bruhl; Gordon: Alex Ferns; Jonathan: Steven Robertson; Gueusselin: Lucas Belvaux; General: Bernard Le Coq; Bishop: Ian Richardson; Jorg: Frank Witter; Le Konprinz: Thomas Schmauser; Zimmermann: Joachim Bissmeier; William: Robin Laing; La chatelaine: Suzanne Flon; Le chatelain: Michel Serrault.
No MPAA rating, running time 115 minutes
Multinational co-productions: the "Merry Christmas" exemple.
Christian Carion's WWI drama "Merry Christmas" could serve as a template for Euro co-production.
By Scott Roxborough
COLOGNE, Germany -- Sony Pictures Classics $2 million pickup of Christian Carion's World War I drama "Merry Christmas" wasn't just one of the biggest deals announced at this year's Cannes market. The trilingual movie is a rare example of a truly European joint effort with global appeal that could serve as a template for Euro co-production.
The movie, which recounts the famous World War I ceasefire at Christmas 1914, when Scottish, French and German troops laid down their weapons, sang carols and played soccer in No Man's Land, was an audience favorite at Cannes. SPC promptly snatched up rights for the U.S., Italy, the U.K. and South America from Gallic sales outfit Films Distribution.
"This is an interesting test case because ('Merry Christmas') may be the first European film that is all things to all people," says a veteran French sales exec unconnected to the project. "The French see it as a French film. The Germans see it as German and the British see it as British. It might be the model for making big projects like this out of Europe in the future."
On the face of it, "Christmas" is your typical Euro pudding. Produced by Christophe Rossignon under his Paris-based Nord-Ouest banner, the picture has a French writer-director (Carion) and is a five-way co-production featuring actors from France, Germany and Britain.
"For me, a Euro pudding is one where the transnational elements are forced. You take a few ingredients from each territory to please each co-producer," Rossignon says. "From the outset, Carion and I said we have to have a German co-producer and distributor. We wanted the German audience to be able to see it as a German movie," he adds. That led to Senator Film Produktion coming on board.
But Rossignon knew he was unlikely to get a similar commitment from a U.K. distributor, so he opted for a purely financial partner in The Bureau, which gave access to British tax funding. The subject matter convinced Belgian co-producer Artemis to sign up, with the Romanian partner reflecting where the bulk of the film was shot.
But to string together the film's €18 million ($22 million) budget, Rossignon had to bring in a total of 26 partners, including various European, national and regional subsidies.
The track record of previous pan-European projects is less than impressive. Sally Potter's "The Man Who Cried" tapped French and British cash, featured two of Europe's top production houses (Working Title and StudioCanal) and boasted an all-star cast including Christina Ricci, Cate Blanchett, Johnny Depp and John Turturro. But the film flopped, earning less than $800,000 in its U.S. theatrical release.
Similarly, "Heaven," Miramax's co-production with Germany's X Filme, France's Noe Prods. and Star Edizioni Cinematografische of Italy combined a hot German director (Tom Tykwer) with a script from late Polish legend Krzysztof Kieslowski and added stars Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi together with a cast of Italian A-listers. But the film failed to break the $1 million mark in the U.S. and performed worse in Germany than Tykwer's previous all-German, low-budget efforts "The Princess and the Warrior" and "Run Lola Run."
But while previous Euro projects have wedged multinational elements into an essentially national story in order to secure financing or help international distribution -- see France's comic-strip adaptation "The Daltons" with German star Til Schweiger in a glorified cameo role, or "Asterix and Obelix vs. Caesar" with Italy's Roberto Benigni -- "Merry Christmas" was conceived from the start as a true European film.
"When I met the French producers, I was surprised how open they were to the German aspect of this story," Senator topper Benjamin Herrmann says. "It wasn't about the 'bad Germans' and the 'good French.' It was about trying to be truthful to the characters and their stories, wherever they came from."
"Merry Christmas" also avoids the most clunky aspect of Euro-pudding productions -- bad accents -- by having everyone speak in their respective native tongue.
French stars Guillaume Canet and Dany Boon speak French, Daniel Bruehl, Benno Fuermann and Diane Kruger spout off in German, and Gary Lewis and Alex Ferns speak Scots-accented English.
"You can tell the U.S. audience that it's an English film with a little bit of French and German that will require a little bit of effort," says one executive who'll be involved in the movie's U.S. release.
Another high-profile Euro co-production presented in Cannes and structured in a similar way is the in-development "Mongol: The Early Years of Genghis Khan." The first in a planned trilogy on the legendary Asian conqueror, "Mongol" used a Russian presale, German subsidy cash and private equity from Kazhakstan to bankroll its $10 million budget. Like "Christmas," it will feature a multinational, multilingual cast in an epic story of war and the clash of nations.
There is a limit to the number of stories that will fit the "Christmas" model. Cedric Klapisch's exchange student comedy "L'Auberge Espagnole" (The Spanish Apartment) and its forthcoming sequel "The Russian Dolls" are natural subject matter for the transcontinental treatment. But traditional dramas and comedies such as "Goodbye, Lenin!" or "Amelie" remain better suited to the local treatment than a pan-national potpourri of languages and actors.
Charles Masters contributed to this report.
Published June 07, 2005
(France-Germany-U.K.-Belgium-Romania) A UGC release (in France) of a Nord-Ouest presentation of a Nord-Ouest Production (France)/Senator Film Produktion (Germany)/Artemis Films Production (Belgium)/The Bureau (U.K.)/ Media Pro Pictures (Romania) co-production with TF1 Films Production, Productions de La Gueville, with participation of Canal Plus, CineCinema, Sat. 1, the Nord Pas de Calais Region, CRRAV, with support from CNC, Eurimages, FFA Filmforderungsanstalt and the Tax Shelter of the Belgian Government in association with Soficinema, Groupe Un, Unietoile 2, Scope Invest, Cofinova 1, Nippon Herald, Cofimage 16, Cineart, Sogecinema 3, Films Distribution. (International sales: Films Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Christophe Rossignon. Co-producers, Christopher Borgmann, Benjamin Herrmann, Patrick Quinet, Bertrand Faivre, Kate Ogborn, Sol Guatti-Pascual, Andrei Boncea. Executive producer, Eve Machuel. Directed, written by Christian Carion.
With: Diane Kruger, Benno Furmann, Guillaume Canet, Gary Lewis, Dany Boon, Daniel Bruhl, Alex Ferns, Steven Robertson, Lucas Belvaux, Bernard Le Coq, Ian Richardson, Frank Witter, Thomas Schmauser, Joachim Bissmeier, Robin Laing, Suzanne Flon, Michel Serrault.
(French, German, English dialogue)
By Lisa Nesselsson
The message is powerful with storytelling to match in "Merry Christmas," an exploration of duty versus shared humanity based on authentic incidents from the first year of WWI. Even cynics, who might find the idea of enemies celebrating Christmas together a bit too tidy a theme, should be impressed by where this proudly old-fashioned pic is headed: A final reel with multiple resonances for the current world. Salutary example of a trilingual pan-European co-production in which the pooling of thesps and resources makes perfect sense will open across Europe Dec. 14. Pic should do encouraging business on the Continent and beyond.
Scripter-helmer Christian Carion, whose commercially successful debut "The Girl From Paris" revolved around only two characters, avoids the sophomore slump with flying colors as he smoothly juggles three different cultures -- plus the weight of history -- in a period drama marbled with humor, bold gestures and bittersweet consequences.
Intelligently allowing for the possibility that some filmgoers might not be aware that the Brits and the French were allied against the Germans when war broke out in August 1914, pic begins with three schoolchildren in three classrooms each reciting a nationalistic poem about the patriotic need to obliterate their country's chosen enemy.
Narrative's major characters are then introduced. Anglican priest Palmer (Gary Lewis) observes in dismay as brothers Jonathan (Steven Robertson) and William (Robin Laing) burst with excitement over the fact that they'll be leaving their Scottish village for military training in Glasgow.
Meanwhile, Danish soprano Anna Sorensen (Diane Kruger) watches from the stage of the Berlin Opera as her lover, famed tenor Nikolaus Sprink's (Benno Furmann) entrance is interrupted by a soldier with a message from Kaiser Wilhelm announcing to the audience that Germany is at war.
With no other indicators but a change of language and season, story proceeds to its central location: the freezing front in France. Career French soldier, Lt. Audebert (Guillaume Canet) is sick to his stomach before leading his men on a charge against the Germans in the trench just a few hundred feet opposite.
Unaware the conflict would slog on for four years, Audebert tells his men if they perform well, they can all be home for Christmas in a week. Joining them in battle are members of a Scottish regiment led by Gordon (Alex Ferns).
The Germans are under the command of Lt. Horstmayer (Daniel Bruhl), a smart disciplinarian who speaks both French and English, for reasons that add a late-arriving punch to his character's professional dilemma. A modest barber named Ponchel (Dany Boon) who is Audebert's aide-de-camp, fellow soldier Gueusselin (Belgian Lucas Belvaux) and a French General (Bernard Le Coq) round out the principal cast.
Enterprising Anna has wrangled a trip to the German command post to give a Christmas Eve recital. She has a pass from the Kaiser himself and plans to be reunited to sing with Sprink, who is serving nearby under Horstmayer.
The horrors of the war thus far have changed Sprink, who is thrilled to see his true love, but feels his place is back with his fellow rank-and-file soldiers. Thanks to the acoustics of the compact battlefield, on the moonlit night of the 24th, the German tenor and some Scots with bagpipes end up making beautiful music together from their separate protective outposts.
The three officers call a truce, which would ordinarily consist of a cease-fire with all three nationalities staying put in their respective trenches. But one thing leads to another and mortal adversaries are soon fraternizing up a storm. They share champagne, cigarettes and chocolate, hand around photos of wives and girlfriends and communicate as best they can.
The night grows increasingly memorable and turns into a Christmas day as solemn as it is ironic. Where does holiday spirit end and high treason begin?
Because pic is set in an era when codes of honor were clear among the colonial powers, decisions that break the rules carry instant gravitas. The spirit of complicity among adversaries elegantly conveys the oft-explored assertion that war is not only hell but also bottomlessly idiotic.
"A Very Long Engagement" set the bar exceedingly high for subsequent pics set in the trenches of WWI, but production design here serves the story every step of the way, with unfussy widescreen lensing in France, Romania, Germany and Scotland. Well-cast thesps are easy to keep straight.
Although a few lines of dialogue veer toward the overly-didactic or self-consciously poetic, potentially clumsy melding of characters and incidents is deft and convincing, with music as a vector of cross-cultural understanding. When the other shoe drops, viewers have been made to identify with all sides to such an extent that three-pronged conclusion can only be devastating.
Camera (color, widescreen), Walther Vanden Ende; editor, Andrea Sedlackova; music, Philippe Rombi; Anna Sorensen's singing voice, Nathalie Dessay; Nikolaus Sprink's singing voice, Rolando Villazon; production designer, Jean-Michel Simonet; costume designer, Alison Forbes-Meyler; sound (Dolby), Pierre Mertens, Tyhomas Desjonqueres, Dean Humphreys; assistant director, Philippe Larue; casting, Susie Figgis, Sabine Schroth. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (non-competing) May 15, 2005. Running time: 116 MIN.
Review written by Boyd van Hoeij
This film was screened as part of the
2005 Flanders Film Festival at Ghent.
A temporary cease-fire during a war that comes about because of Christmas-
sentiment sounds like the stuff a screenwriter might come up with for an old-
fashioned holiday season weepie, but the European co-production ‘Joyeux Noël’ (Merry Christmas) -which portrays such an unlikely event- is based on a true story. Skilfully directed, acted and shot, the Christian Carion film is
unapologetically melodramatic and has every right to –it’s true story pedigree
guaranteeing that no-one will be able to complain that such things do -or at least did- not happen in the real world.
In the last wintry months of 1914 the First World War had barely started, but
the people in the trenches believed the war would be a matter of weeks rather than years. Just before Christmas the Germans, led by Horstmayer (Daniel Brühl, from Good bye, Lenin!) have lined up against the allied front of the French (led by Guillaume Canet’s Lieutenant Audebert) and the Scots, led by Gordon (Alex
Amongst the Germans is the famous tenor Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Führmann), who has been drafted into the army just like anyone else, much to the displeasure of his Danish girlfriend Anna Sörensen (Diane Kruger), who is also an opera singer. Through the right connections, she is able to come and visit him at the front and on Christmas eve Sprink and Sörensen find themselves together in the trenches. When they hear the Scots playing their bagpipes, the tenor-come-soldier, with all the flair of a man of the theatre, hops out of the trenches into no man’s land, singing on the top of his longs with only a Christmas-tree for protection.
The universality and sentimentality of the peace-preaching Christmas songs
hesitantly lead the three commanding officers to call a temporary truce. But rather than staying in their respective trenches, each side soon joins the officers in no man’s land for an exchange of Christmas wishes, chocolate and spirits, only to find (not unsurprisingly) that the enemy is more similar to them than the war-propaganda would have them believe. As Lieutenant Audebert later puts it "we [French soldiers] have more in common with the German soldiers than with the French politicians that are sending us off into war". But what are the consequences of this? Where and when does the Christmas spirit end and do they have to revert back to killing one another, as their respective countries demand and expect of good soldiers?
In the deceptively simple screenplay written by the director, the exploration of the characters and the ideas of patriotism and fatherland (which are so important in keeping up the troops’ morale) are cunningly entwined. Our group of protagonists is a miniature version of the cosmopolitan and completely interconnected European patchwork of countries and the European motto “In varietate concordia” (United in diversity). Mutual respect and –violence have always dominated European history. Carion treatment of grand themes are alternated with the careful observation of small details, including the ever present lice and endless waiting for battle rather than ongoing fighting rings true and adds a layer of authenticity often lacking in films set in the period. A small scene involving Anna running into the French owners of what is now the German headquarters at the front underlines the tragic nature of war perfectly; the husband wants nothing to do with Anna (while she is not even German, though he does not know that) while his wife tries to look past the war to see the human being, despite the fact that the war has robbed her of her own home.
The actors, led by Fürmann’s inspirational performance, are in great shape
and are given a detailed period setting designed by Jean-Michel Simone as their stage. The occasional hiccough (obvious lip-synching of the opera singers, the lack of visible ‘cold breath’ in the outdoor scenes) are minor and the film’s later scenes, which deal with the consequences of the short-lived fraternisation, have such a strong contemporary resonance that it is hard to dismiss the film’s overall force. Schmaltzy to just the right extent and supported by its true Christmas theme of peace between the nations, ‘Joyeux Noël’ is destined to unite audiences across the continent and become a holiday season perennial.
The General's Perspective
The meaning of the truce has been debated for years.
Perhaps the most eloquent statement came from a British participant, Murdoch M Wood, in 1930 in Parliament: "The fact is that we did it, and I then came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired."
There's a much more recent story, though, that shows the truce has not retreated entirely to the realm of idealism and stirring rhetoric. Its subversiveness - which every participant recognized - is still alive. In some quarters, the truce is still a threat.
Christian Carion, the director of "Joyeux Noel," wanted to make his movie in France. He researched many sites and found an acceptable one on a military reservation. He sought permission to shoot there, but after many months was turned down. According to Carion, a general told him: "We cannot be partner with a movie about rebellion."
He made his movie in Romania instead.