Human beings are able to accomplish amazing things: seize pieces of wire, a hollow reed, bits of wood, clumps of colored soil, symbols for words and meld them into the art of music and painting, sculpture and literature. At our best, we are willing to sacrifice ourselves for others out of a divine emotion we know as love. And yet, it seems, that if our species were judged by beings from afar, we would be known not for the beauty we create or the generosity we sometimes show, but rather for the harm we do. Our defining quality is homicide. Century upon century, human history is the history of warfare. Most wars have been sanguine folly, none more so than World War I. It was a time when Europe embarked upon an orgy of slaughter that sacrificed an entire generation of its young men only to plow a fertile landscape for the evils of fascism and communism and another round of suffering and death to come.
World War I is too little remembered today. But its toll on Western civilization was staggering. Hunkered down in trenches, men faced each other across a killing field of 35 yards and died for advances that were measured in feet. The casualty rates were overwhelming: one-half for the British, two-thirds for the Germans, three-fourths for the French. To be sent to the front was a virtual death sentence. And yet these young men who gunned each other down and blew each other up all hailed from one cultural tradition and prayed to the same Christian God. This madness, and a fleeting passage of sanity, that broke out in its midst are the subjects of writer-director Christian Carion's Oscar-nominated Joyeux Noel.
Based on a real incident, Joyeux Noel is the story of average men, farmers, factory workers and shopkeepers from three countries who came briefly to their senses for a few hours during one of humankind's most inexcusable episodes. As dramatized here, the great operatic tenor Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Furmann) has been drafted to serve in the infantry of Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm. But after singing with his beautiful Danish wife, Anna (Diane Kruger), at a 1914 Christmas party hosted by the Crown Prince, Nikolaus insists on returning to the front to be with his men for whom he has promised to sing on Christmas Eve. Anna insists on accompanying him.
Meanwhile, we have made the acquaintance of several individuals from the trenches across the way. The French are commanded by Lt. Audebert (Guillaume Canet), the son of a general who wants to arrange a position for the lieutenant in the rear. Audebert despises the war, but he doesn't want to accept privileged treatment. Allied with the French are a company of Scots. We know Jonathan (Steven Robertson) and William (Robin Laing), who have been quickly disabused of their romantic notions of excitement and possibilities for heroism. They are accompanied by their parish priest, Fr. Palmer (Gary Lewis), who is a pacifist but has volunteered to serve as a medic.
Since the opposing troops are literally only a stone's throw apart, when Nikolaus and Anna begin to sing for the Germans, the French and Scots can clearly hear them. Then Palmer begins to accompany the singers on his bagpipes, and the Allied troops join in the caroling. Stirred by their common Christianity, Nikolaus climbs from his trench into No Man's Land, risking instant death. But the Allies hold fire, and soon Audebert is meeting with his German counterpart, Lt. Horstmayer (Daniel Bruhl) to arrange a cease fire. Men from both sides congregate in the middle. They exchange gifts of chocolate and champagne, and Fr. Palmer celebrates a mass that all attend. The commanders decree that the cease fire will continue on Christmas day. The opponents work together to bury the dead that have lain uncovered in No Man's Land, and afterwards they play cards and soccer. Some exchange addresses with men wearing enemy uniforms and pledge to visit when the war finally ends.
The cease fire has no official status, however, and when superiors on both sides learn what has happened, Audebert, Horstmayer and Palmer are dealt with severely. The priest is defrocked. Audebert is relieved of his command. And our haunting last image of Horstmayer finds him sitting in a boxcar with his troops as they are being transferred to the Russian front where, if such a thing is possible, the suffering is greater still.
As the Iraq War, which was started under false pretenses, plunges into its fourth year with the dying unabated, I grow weary at human blindness and stupidity, cynical at the prospect that we will ever learn.
- Lt. Audebert (Guillaume Canet) searches for a moment of sanity in the craziness of World War I in Christian Carion's Joyeux Noel