Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas): What Inspired French Director Christian Carion

Christian Carion on Joyeux Noel
(Merry Christmas)

This movie is inspired by a true story, which occurred in the trenches of the World War I battlefield on Christmas Eve in 1914. When war breaks out in the lull of summer 1914, it surprises and pulls millions of men in its wake. Christmas arrives, with its snow and multitude of family and army presents. But the surprise wont come from inside the generous parcels, which lie in the French, Scottish, and German trenches. That night, a momentous event will turn the destinies of four characters: an Anglican priest, a French lieutenant, an exceptional German tenor and the one he loves, a soprano and singing partner. During this Christmas Eve, the unthinkable happens: soldiers come out of their trenches, leaving their rifles behind to shake hands with the enemy.

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, were 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 honored 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 plowing 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 NOL (Merry Christmas). 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 Chtimi (patois for a person from Northern France), like me. He was the 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 percent 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 n 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 that roamed from one trench to the other and in the film ended up being imprisoned. In reality, the tomcat was accused of spying and was arrested by the French army and then shot according to regulations! I wanted to show this in JOYEUX NOL (Merry Christmas) 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 the 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 NOL (Merry Christmas) 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 to recreate what had happened to these men as realistically as possible. It was a way of honoring 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 Brhl, Diane Krger, Alex Ferns and Benno Frmann. 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. Thats 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 NOL (Merry Christmas) were thinking about the soldiers who courageously fraternized. At the time, they were considered cowards. For me, they were neither heroes nor cowards. They were merely men who accomplished something incredibly human. If JOYEUX NOL (Merry Christmas) 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.

Christian Carion’s Filmography

2001 The Girl From Paris (Une Hirondelle a Fait le Printemps)
1998 Monsier Le Deput
1997 Le Chteau DEau
1994 Doucement Les Violons!