Sunday, December 17, 2006

Film Review # 69: Joyeaux Noel
Director: Christian Carion

As a type, the war movie exposé usually depicts atrocities or other scandalous behavior that’s been covered up. In the flood of documentaries about the Iraq war, for example, noted filmmakers Rory Kennedy (The Homestead Strike) and Errol Morris (The Fog of War) both have upcoming movies on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Brian DePalma based his 1989 Casualties of War on an incident in which US soldiers raped a Vietnamese woman. And last week Days of Glory opened in New York City; Algeria’s official Oscar submission for best foreign language film dramatizes the racist treatment during and after World War II endured by conscripted “indigenous” troops from Algeria and other French colonies in North Africa who fought for France.

Last year’s Joyeaux Noel is a second kind of war movie exposé, not nearly as common. In this film peace breaks out and – equally as riveting to watch – is rapidly and decisively suppressed. You’ve probably heard the story. One Christmas Eve in France during World War I, enemy troops started singing, and declared a local truce that night. As often as you’ve heard this, someone has probably said, “Oh that didn’t really happen, it’s like one of those urban legends.”

The Oscar-nominated film's director, Christian Carion, belongs to Noel 14, a group that is documenting instances of such spontaneous truces among enemy soldiers. They claim that about 90% of these contacts occur because one group of soldiers sings and the other side applauds or sings back.

The extraordinarily moving Joyeaux Noel dramatizes one such incident on Christmas Eve 1914, in which the noted German opera tenor Nikolaus Sprink, serving in the German army, sparked some treasonous fraternizing among German, French and Scots troops by his singing.

Joyeaux Noel opens with schoolchildren reciting patriotic verses that castigate their nation’s enemies since, as South Pacific reminded us, you have to be carefully taught. In a highland village, one Scots brother excitedly tells another that war’s been declared. Their priest, Palmer (Gary Lewis), follows them into war as a medic, taking along his bagpipes. In Berlin, military announcements on-stage interrupt Sprink (Benno Furmann) and his fiancé/singing partner Anna Sörensen (Diane Kruger) ; soon Sprink is fighting in France. There, a French general’s son, Lt. Audebert (Guillaume Canet), is so frightened that he vomits before first leading his troops into artillery fire.

These characters meet outside the city of Lens, their trenches just a few hundred yards apart, deadlocked from summer into winter over possession of the bombed-out Delsaux family farm. Millions died in such trenches, filthy, freezing, wet, rat and lice-infested warrens that gave us the term “shell shock.” Carion’s camera moves quickly among his three companies, tying each brief scene to the next by some noise that’s overheard in the neighboring trench. This prepares us for Christmas Eve. So does the oddly persistent lure of deadly no-man’s land, where one soldier after another seems pulled, whether to spy or retrieve the dead and wounded.

Carion creates a celebrity fiancé for Sprink who engineers a ritzy holiday concert for officers, retrieving Sprink for a night. When he returns to the trenches, improbably Anna goes along. There, the Scots’ singing and bagpipes trigger a musical call and Sprink’s response across no-man’s land. Heads peek above earthworks. Soon they’re mingling, answering the responses in Palmer's Latin Mass. The next day, they share soccer, cards, family photos, and bury their dead. It is hard for them to go back. Lt. Horstmayar (Daniel Bruhl) invites the Allies to shelter in his trenches when artillery fire first resumes.

Can’t figure out why the Sunnis and the Shiites are killing each other? This film’s Europeans share more than Christmas songs and growing up with the Latin Mass. Each furious military superior immediately ships out or disbands their regiments, intercepts their mail and orders silence. An incensed Anglican bishop suggests Palmer leave the priesthood, then preaches to fresh troops from Mathew, “I come not to bring peace. I bring a sword.”

You have your Holocaust deniers, your My Lai deniers – and your Christmas Eve 1914 deniers. If you think about it, they are usually of the same stripe. They are the ones who would make a no-man’s land of our hearts and minds, a place where war’s consequences are neither very bad nor war’s flukes very good either, where instead war itself is simply normal. Joyeaux Noel is one of cinema’s better answers to that.

Published in Make It Snappy, a regular DVD column in the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, on 12/14/06.