(Premiere Date: May 16, 2005 [Cannes Film Festival, France])
(US Release Date: March 3, 2006)
It's notable that Carion doesn't pull any punches in the telling, either. He never lets the audience forget that War is Hell, even when his message is "Christmas is Magic"! This isn't your typical ABC Television, light hearted Christmas Special. This is bloody and cold and frightening. In short, by the time we get to our dénouement... we need a little Christmas, right this very minute!
Carion chooses three focal points, one from each army, and uses these as the roots with which this Christmas Tree can grow. On the German side we have the pensive artist, an Opera singer named Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann) who loves his country almost as much as he loves his fellow Opera star Anna Sörensen (Diane Kruger). His pathos is already palpable before he is drafted into the German army during a performance. Pour les Français we meet the career military man and devout Patriot Lieutenant Audebert (Guillaume Canet), who might be that proverbial "perfect soldier" if he didn't hate war. And then there are the Scots, best represented by Father Palmer (Gary Lewis), the Catholic Priest who follows two of his young parishioners into the army to protect them. All three are idealistic and hopeful in their own way, and all three might have been friends if situations were different. Through them we meet the German commander, Lieutenant Horstmayer (Daniel Brühl), who is torn between his orders of conquest and his very identity, and the compassionate Scottish commander named Gordon (Alex Ferns).
The battles are fierce and bloody, but when Christmas Eve rolls around and no one is firing, the sounds of bagpipes rise from the Scottish trench, then the sound of Sprink's operatic voice rises from the German trench to meet it, and then the French join in. At the point that Sprink rises from the trench to deliver a small Christmas Tree to the no-man's land between them, no one dares fire, lest he stop singing.
It is Christmas, after all, and in light of the brief harmony all three armies shared Audebert, Horstmayer and Gordon tentatively shake hands in a temporary truce to celebrate Christmas together. What follows is a night of song and prayer (including a full Christmas Mass), and even new and old friends drinking together. In and of itself, this would be a great little Holiday story to tell, that is, if Christian Carion was anywhere near done. You see, around this point things feel smooth and sweet, almost too easy considering these nasty surroundings, and one must wonder if Carion is over-sentimentalizing. However, he paces the rest of the story out in a logical and explanatory manner, showing the aftermath and fallout of peace during a time of war.
The problem is, once a friendship is formed, men find it a might hard to keep on shooting at each other. Shared experience has made them very similar people, regardless of nationality, and all three militaries have a name for that... in English, we call it "Treason". Being Europeans, the real bonding takes place during the requisite game of Soccer. "Treason" indeed!
No, this isn't some pat, sugar-coated Christmas Story, whose most perilous situation is getting the Roast done before Mom and Dad drive up. This is much more powerful than that, and delves deeply into the true meaning of Christmas, even for those among the men who weren't Catholic... or, in fact, Christian at all. The seemingly sentimental is given depth and reason here and the various (yet clearly detailed) sub-plots come to intelligent, final and logical ends (be they happy or sad). This one is a keeper, and worth every second of your time to watch and experience.
For Joyeux Noel, the excellent French Christmas War film for adults, I gratefully grant Four and One Half Stars out of Five! The few flaws (such as un-synced Opera singing) are easily outweighed by the greatness of this film. It's one of a kind, all right, and each character is a well formed complexity, about as predictable as the wind. In French, German and English (with English subtitles), all three sides are equally represented as if the enemy is out there... not on the Soccer field. Give it a shot. I think I'll pour up some hot toddies, share some presents and trim that tree... True, I am in Southern California, and Christmas has been over for months, but kids, I'm in the spirit. Now if I could just find a German to hug.
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