Merry Christmas (Joyeux Noel): France’s Oscar-Nominated Film, Starring Guillaume Canet

Inspired by a little known true story, which occurred in the trenches of the World War I battlefield on Christmas Eve 1914, Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas), the French nominee for the Best Foreign-Language Oscar, is a well mounted if also  old-fashioned in both narrative and style.

The movie, which world-premiered at last year’s Cannes Festival, divided critics. Some faulted it for its conventional storytelling, conventional qualities of classic cinema that are hardly seen anymore in French or American cinema. Others liked the film’s humanistic message but thought that it was too easily earned.

Merry Christmas celebrates unabashedly a footnote in WWI history, when soldiers who were enemies put aside their political and national allegiances in favor of a shared camaraderie. When war breaks out in the summer 1914, it surprises and pulls millions of men. 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 turns 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.

That said, the filmmaking itself leaves a lot to be desired. The first reel, in which the protags are introduced, is a bit dull and overlong. We meet the French soldier Audebett (Guillaume Canet), the Scottish priest Palmer (Gary Lewis), and the German opera singer from Berlin, Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Furmann), all of whom are forced to desert their respective families.

Also familiar is the second reel, which depicts the trenches during a nasty winter. Quite naively, the soldiers are (mis) led to believe that the War would be short, perhaps even be over by Christmas. In a nice tough, of all the countries, the Germans are shown to be the most prepared and the most concerned for a long war in the snow-covered fields, since they send thousands of Xmas trees to the front line. It was supposed to be the soldiers’ only one Christmas spent on the front, and Kaiser William II felt that even in times of war, values should be maintained.

On Christmas Eve, Sprink’s lover, Anna (played by model-turned actress Diane Kruger of Troy’s fame) arranges a pass for him to attend a concert, after which, quite surprisingly, Sprink takes her to the trenches. In the film’s emotional climax, Sprink begins singing, and the Scottish accompany him. A brief truce is orchestrated, and the three groups almost forget about the War and engage wholeheartedly in singing, playing football and so on.

The euphoria ends and the liberal Palmer is replaced by a more chauvinistic Scottish priest, who engages in ideological and pseudo-religious speeches on why it’s in God’s wish that the German soldiers be killed. For his part, a German officer named Horstmayer (Daniel Bruhl) explains why the whole War is ironic.

Wearing its humanism on its sleeves, Merry Christmas differs in sensibility from Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front, which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1930. And it lacks the modernist and ironic approach of Kubrick’s very different take on the trench war in Paths of Glory (1957), starring Kirk Douglas, which was a box-office bomb due to its cynical portraiture of the elite of the military institution. Some critics dismissed the film as Capraesque, reflecting the kind of War movie that Frank Capra would have made at its most sentimental.

In his approach toward the soldiers, who courageously fraternized, avoids making values judgments, instead letting the audience do it. Though at the time, they were considered cowards, the filmmaker refuses to label them as cowards or heroes. They were merely men who accomplished something incredibly human. Carion has said in Cannes that his intent is to pay homage to the memory of these soldiers. As a filmmaker, he seems intrigued by the potential power of art and culture, specifically in how popular songs and music didn’t replace fighting but manage to silence the cannons”for a while.

Though minor in most respects, Merry Chritsmas is an enjoyable film even if it lacks depth. For me, the process of making the movie is more intriguing than watching the film itself. In 1993, Christian Carion discovered a book, “Battles of Flanders and Artois 1914-1918,” by Yves Buffetaut. While reading it, he came upon an extraordinary passage entitled The Incredible Winter of 1914, in which Buffetaut 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

The film is based on extensive research of these astounding news events in the British archives, and later on in the French and German archives as well. With the help of Yves Buffetaut, Carion was able to access these documents. In many ways, the film and the historical events upon which it is based, reflect differences in nationality and morality. Hence, during WWI, 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, many of which still held in France.

It’s important to remember that the characters represent a blend of real-life and fictitious individuals. For example Ponchel, the aide-de-camp, a Chtimi (patois for a person from Northern France), 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 the next morning to fight the war! There was also the German tenor who genuinely sang for the French soldiers one Christmas evening, an important character because most of the fraternizing happened when people sang, while others listened, responded, and applauded.

Some of the script’s events are incredible to believe, such as 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! During the final cut, Carion decided not to show the execution scene.

Carion first filmed the war scene, camp by camp, so that the actors didn’t encounter each other, or encountered each other in the fray. Things got rough, when the shoot was postponed for several months, because the French army refused authorization to create a no man’s land on the field.