Tuesday, October 5, 2010

SHOULD I READ IT? "Joyeux Noel"

      This is the first in my series of reviews of foreign-made and foreign-spoken war movies.  The idea is to provide analysis that will help American war movie lovers decide if the movie is worth the effort of putting up with a movie with subtitles.
     "Joyeux Noel" (Merry Christmas) is a French film released in 2005 that is based on the famous X-Mas Truce of 1914.  It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foriegn Language Film.  Here is the historical background:  On Christmas Eve on the Western Front spontaneous cease-fires broke out along parts of the front.  They started in some cases with the Germans putting up Christmas trees and candles along their parapets and singing carols like "Silent Night".  The British or French responded with their own songs and then the mood caused some brave souls to go into No Man's Land to fraternize.  Gifts, food, and drinks were exchanged.  In one case, a soccer (football) game was played between a Scottish unit and a German unit.
     The movie tells a fictional story of one of the truces.  It centers on characters in the French, British (Scots), and German armies.  The five main characters are the French lieutenant Audebert, the German tenor Sprink and his soprano girlfriend Anna, a Scottish soldier named Jonathan and his parish priest Palmer.
     The movie opens with schoolchildren from each of the main participants reciting jingoistic poems of hatred toward their foes.  It is an effective way of reminding the audience of the nationalism that brought on the war and sets up the amazing pause in the hatred that the truce represents.
     We get an early scene that shows the Allies going over the top with graphically violent results including the death of Jonathan's brother.  Leaving his mortally wounded brother behind changes Jonathan and hardens him.  This is really the only combat action in a movie that is basically about pacifism.
      The film decides to have the truce begin with a stretch.  The tenor and his girlfriend give an impromptu concert in the trench and when a Scottish bagpipe joins in, Sprink proceeds into No Man's Land to initiate the cease-fire which is agreed to by Audebert and the Scottish and German officers.  The film recreates many of the incidents of fraternization associated with the truce.  The Scottish priest even says a short mass.
     The next day bodies are collected and buried and a soccer match breaks out.  There is more comradeship which reflects that on some parts of the front the truce lasted up to a week.  The movie gets a little off the historical path when on the second day, the Germans warn their foe/friends of an impending bombardment and offer to shelter them in the German trench.  This is more than a bit far-fetched, but in for a penny... Naturally a counterbarrage is coming so the French/Scots return the favor!  Since the trenches are about 50 yards apart, that's some extremely accurate artillery.
      The movie accurately reflects the reactions of the higher ups to pacifist decisions made from the ground up.  All three officers suffer the consequences of their terribly unpatriotic actions.  Even the priest gets demoted by his bishop because he is not preaching the "sword and crusade" theme and pushing the idea that the Germans are not the children of God and we must kill them.
      I liked the movie.  It is a bit heavy-handed (I read criticisms of it being overly sentimental, but I did not find it so), but it is well-acted and takes acceptable liberties in bringing an interesting historical incident to light.  I had heard of the Christmas Truce many years ago and tell it as an anecdote in my history classes. Of course, I emphasized the soccer match.  It was neat to see the event recreated.  There is so little positive to be found in the Great War that you have to take what you can get.
      I do not think it will make my Top 100 list, but I do recommend it.  Also, it's a great date movie.  There are not too many war movies that qualify for that.  Guys, get your significant other to read the sub-titles to you.


  1. Guess this is my turn to cut you some slack?

  2. Bring it on. Let's agree to be brutal from now on as long as we are sincere. I think we are ready. After all, I would never have seen this movie if it was not for you.

  3. I am in no mood for competitions of any kind. I think I will review it in due time and then you can see. The only thing that is important is to say that this is not a French movie. It is a French/German/UK/Belgium and what not co-producton and that is why it is so good. The actors do speak their language. The Brits are Brits, the Scots are Scot and the Geramns are German... They show the differences of the trenches... I read books about the diferences of the infrastructure. The cultural differences are well rendered. It is certainly different for me to watch something lke this as i speak 7 languages fluently plus a few, including Latin, less fluently. I might be one of the rare people to enjoy The Passion of the Christ because we could hear Latin). But this past part of my comment is showing-offish and that is normally not my style.
    I just think that soccer isn't all that important in this movie, much less than the cat. Bah... I already wrote too much.

  4. I figured you had reviewed it. The only reason I watched it was it was on your list of all-time favorites. I believe now that maybe I should have waited to review it.
    As far as the movie, I am a soccer coach so I waited to see if they would reference the soccer game. I guess you could say it was personal for me. I was disappointed that it was not historically accurate in that I had read the Scots won because they were wearing kilts with no underwear so when the wind blew it was distracting to the Germans. LOL
    I have to thank you for broadening my horizens into foreign war films. I seldom watched films with subtitles. Your blog is my favorite and I am amazed at your output. Our back and forth has been exhilarating for me. I am always disappointed when you post something I do not feel competent to comment on.

  5. There is no reason why you shouldn't review it just because I didn't. I wanted to review it maybe around December together with some other movies that handle the topic of Christmas (very frequent). I just thought you didn't do it justice. As for the soccer, it is imortant, I agree. I bought a very interestingt book after having watched the movie, 400 pages only on this particular moment in history, didn't get around to read it though. I would recommend it but am afraid they did not translate it (I will check). Merry Christmas is a rare thing, a truly European movie. I am sure there is a lot lost in translation. Yeah, my output. I am afraid I will have to slow it down as I have quite a stressful corporate job and take courses in the evening... As for competence or not... you can always say, something was interesting or it wasn't or, you would like to watch it or rather not. But that is up to you.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.