December 14, 2011 by abbyo
We’re smack in the middle of the Christmas season this week (Only 10 days left, people!), which means that right now we’re being bombarded on all sides by a shapeless form of sentiment known as “The Spirit of Christmas.” Depending on what TV special or movie you choose, Christmas Spirit could be represented by any number of things—baking cookies, for example, or Santa, or the search for the perfect present. As a Christian, I believe the spirit of Christmas should be just that—spiritual. At its heart, this is a season representing the peace, love and togetherness that the Bible teaches us to show toward each other, even those we don’t know. The decorations, food and endless train of Christmas songs, movies and books are fun, but I believe Christmas spirit should express selfless, sometimes sacrificial love for your fellow man, and all the forms that takes. If you want a Christmas movie that’s about all the extra stuff, just turn on the TV—they’re on 24-7 these days. But, if you want a Christmas movie that expresses the real essence of Christmas, grab a box of tissues and watch Christian Carion’s 2005 movie “Joyeux Noel.”
“Joyeux Noel” is set during World War I, and tells the real-life story of Christmas Eve in 1914, when the Germans and allied troops lay down their weapons and fraternized with each other. They enjoyed a Christmas service, took time to bury their dead, and played soccer, only to face punishment from their superiors, and return to the trenches, where many died soon after. The movie isn’t exactly a masterpiece. The writing, particularly the English dialogue, is clunky, and most of the minor characters serve as rough archetypal illustrations rather than being fully developed. However, it’s worth watching for the beautiful central sequence—the Christmas service and burying of the dead—that’s all the more touching for having really happened. Writer-director Carion also raises relevant points about war, and the difference in perspective between generals, safely cooped up in their headquarters, and the men on the ground that actually carry out orders.
Our main entry points into the events are three generals, one French (Guillaume Canet), one Scottish (Alex Ferns) and one German (Daniel Bruhl). We also have a Scottish priest (Gary Lewis), a young man from his parish (Steven Robertson) and a German soldier, Sprink, (Benno Furmann) who’s a renowned tenor in his civilian life. Through a series of events, Sprink ends up helping to initiate a truce when he starts singing along with Christmas carols the Scottish troops are playing on their bagpipes. This leads to a meeting between the generals, which leads to a cease-fire, which leads to a midnight mass where Lewis’ priest leads all the troops in a gorgeous, touching Latin service, where French, Scottish and German troops sit side by side, reciting and responding to the mass as one. Troops and generals exchange information about their families, opening their personal lives to total strangers, many of whom were aiming guns at them only hours before. It seems like kind of touchy-feely world peace that usually exists only in the minds of wide-eyed idealists. Knowing that this moment of brotherly love and unity really did happen, even if only for a few hours on Christmas, is pretty darn affirming.
But then comes the aftermath, and the real world comes screaming in. Soldiers on both sides face harsh punishment from their superiors. Battalions are disbanded, soldiers are reassigned, and Lewis, the priest who stayed true to his calling, is discharged and sent back to his parish while his bishop preaches a hate-filled sermon to the Scottish troops, seemingly undoing all the good that happened at Christmas. It’s also revealed, in a moment of tragic irony, that Bruhl’s German officer is Jewish, meaning that even if he survives the war, he’s fighting for a country that in a few years’ time will reward his service by persecuting him and his family. Throughout the film, the point is made that those in the upper echelons of power have no idea what it’s like in the field, and have no respect for the fact that the soldiers on each side have more in common with each other than they’d like to admit. It’s a strong anti-war sentiment that speaks quite clearly to the Iraq War. Carion isn’t at all subtle about the connection—the only thing he doesn’t do is intercut his film with footage of Operation Iraqi Freedom. However, even if “Joyeux Noel” Had been made in a time of military peace, the film’s sentiment is thoughtfully and sympathetically portrayed, and (I think) tugs on the heartstrings of Hawks and Doves alike.
“Joyeux Noel” is a movie with an agenda, an agenda that the filmmaker wants to make sure you won’t miss. We live in a world that is capable of surprising acts of selflessness. However, it’s also a world that’s equally cynical, and interested in self-preservation. It’s important to recognize an extraordinary opportunity to share that capacity for love and decency, and grab it, even if the rest of the world condemns you for it. Does this message get slammed over your head like a ten-ton nativity set? Yup. Does Christian Carion’s peacenik heart bleed all over the celluloid? You bet it does. But no matter what you believe, “Joyeux Noel” is pretty compelling, and in the middle of a season of giving and sharing, shows us a solid example of what the spirit of Christmas is supposed to look like. Not cookies, not Santa, but compassion.