I’ve seen many WWI films in my time, even before we started this blog series, but Joyeux Noel is my stand-out favorite. Like All Quiet on the Western Front, it highlights what united the combatants, rather than what divided them. Joyeux Noel is certainly much more pointed than All Quiet, but it has the benefit of ninety years of hindsight, and the benefit of years of lasting peace.
Joyeux Noel, released in 2005, follows three different units in their trenches over Christmas 1914 (“joyeux noel” means “merry Christmas” in French). These three units are Scottish, French, and German, and the film spends an equal amount of time with each unit, never favoring one over the other. There’s not even a single language used—the Scots speak English, the French speak French, and the Germans speak German. As the film shows, even these differences in language can be overcome, because Christmas, apparently, is a language all Western Europeans speak.
In the days leading up to Christmas Eve, the three different units battle each other. Men are killed on both sides, and each suspect the other side of attacking on Christmas Eve or Christmas itself. Sitting in their cold trenches, the Scots begin to play traditional songs on their bagpipes. While the French enjoy a Christmas Eve meal and listen, a German private named Sprink, a former Opera tenor, begins to sing “Silent Night” (in German), and one of the bagpipers accompanies him. The two then go back and forth, singing and playing Christmas songs common to both countries. Sprink eventually climbs out of his trench and strides into No Man’s Land, carrying a Christmas tree and belting “O Come All Ye Faithful.” He sets the tree down as an offering, and the three commanding officers join him and agree to a temporary ceasefire.
What follows is basically a Christmas party, followed by a mass. The soldiers meet in No Man’s Land with food and alcohol, and the officers sit together, relieved but also sad. There’s a soccer game (the Germans win), and Father Palmer, the Scottish priest, celebrates a mass. All three units are mostly Catholic, and all are moved and briefly united in their shared faith. All in all, the ceasefire continues for several days, and once hostilities recommence, the units on both sides find it impossible to fight each other.
These Christmas ceasefires did occur, though apparently only in 1914. Joyeux Noel makes us question: How could the war have continued if the different sides participated in these ceasefires? The film’s Christmas truce forced all of the men to acknowledge their supposed enemies as real people, and not an abstract enemy, so how could men in similar situations go back to shooting each other once the truces ended?
In Joyeux Noel’s highly fictionalized depiction of these truces, the fighting goes on because the new comrades are separated. The Scottish unit is disbanded, the French unit is sent to Verdun, and the German unit is shipped to the Eastern Front. In order for the war to continue, in order for a victory, the militaries and governments on both sides cannot allow their soldiers to see the enemy as their friends, or even fellow men.
The actual reasons why fighting continued after the truces are more complicated, but Joyeux Noel doesn’t delve any deeper. It leaves us with a simple explanation, and a little heartbreak over the futility of the units’ situation. It is in no way a feel-good Christmas movie, and it’s definitely not a victorious war movie. In a way, it’s a film tailor-made for the early age of the European Union. Joyeux Noel argues that more binds the warring European countries than divides them, and that what divides exist are surmountable. It’s a nice idea, but one that could only truly be realized ninety years and two world wars later.