Running Time: 116 mins.
Rated: Rated M.
Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) is an international collaboration between France, the UK and Germany, with scenes filmed in Romania. Its setting is World War I, especially Christmas eve and Christmas day, 1914. The bulk of the film is spoken in French (with English sub-titles). The Scottish characters speak English and the Germans, German.
Stories have long been told of how the troops in the trenches, often only four or five metres apart, sometimes fraternised during lulls between bombardments. This story focuses on a French troop, a Scottish troop and a German troop. We are given something of their background, the harking back to the styles and codes of 19th century warfare by the French officers who had little understanding of what fighting in the trenches was like. It was the same with the German officers who enjoyed lavish meals and listened to opera singers while their men were in the bitter cold of the trenches. The Scottish story is somewhat different. Two brothers eagerly join up while their parish priest becomes a chaplain. One of the brothers is killed and the other becomes bitter. The chaplain is a fine man and a compassionate minister.
When husband and wife opera singers visit the German trenches, they hear the Scots playing their bagpipes. The tenor sings Silent Night and the bagpipes then accompany him. The result is that all the troops come out of their dugouts, join in the singing, listen to the soprano sing Ave Maria, exchange food and drink and attend, all together, a midnight service led by the chaplain. The screenplay is very strong in highlighting that this is truly the Christmas message of peace on earth to all people of good will. The German officer is Jewish and explains that this is not part of his religion but that he was very glad to be able to share in it.
The officers call a truce on Christmas Day and the men once again show their common humanity. Some play football, others cards. Addresses are exchanged for meetings after the cessation of hostilities.
Had the film ended with this joyeux noel, this merry Christmas, it might have seemed rather sentimental, even though there are records of this kind of fraternisation happening. (The director has pointed out that photos appeared on the front pages of British newspapers of the time but that the French concealed these happenings.)
To our dismay, the final part of the film presents the official reaction to what the authorities call treason and conduct unbecoming soldiers in war - even ludicrously condemning the cat who moves from trench to trench. The Germans are humiliated by commanding officers and sent to the Russian front. The French would like to execute the men for treason but 200 is too many, so they are transferred to Verdun. The Scots chaplain is visited by his bishop who lectures him on the text that Jesus came not to bring peace but the sword and gives a sermon to the troops on the war being a crusade, on the inhumanity of the Germans and, in the name of superior culture and civilisation, urges the men to kill Germans, all of them.
Director, Christian Clarion, has said that he would like his film to be screened in every country which is involved in war. His humane film, classical in its cinema style, is a wonderful appeal to promoting a culture of peace rather than putting a priority on a crusade of destruction. It appeals to the deepest message of peace from the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Gospel teaching of Jesus.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.