Friday, December 22, 2006

Joyeux Noel / ***½ (PG-13)

Anna Sorensen: Diane Kruger
Nikolaus Sprink: Benno Furmann
Lieutenant Audebert: Guillaume Canet
Ponchel: Dany Boon
Palmer: Gary Lewis
Horstmayer: Daniel Bruhl
Gordon: Alex Ferns
Johnathan: Steven Robertson

Sony Pictures Classics presents a film written and directed by Christian Carion. Running time: 116 min. Rated PG-13 (for some war violence and a brief scene of sexuality/nudity). Presented in English, French and German w/ English subtitles.

I’m a sucker for good war movies. There is a level of emotion riding upon the realization that these wars actually happened. And as the history of film has developed, the sophistication of war films has gotten ever greater. Also there has been a greater concentration on telling war stories that actually happened rather than those idealized John Wayne romps, or those Steve McQueen adventures. Now, war films are more likely to center on our humanity, not on our need to win for the cause of democracy.

“Joyeux Noel” is a French film that takes documented incidents from the First World War and dramatizes them in a war story of humanity, by depicting a front where the soldiers from both sides of the line call a truce on Christmas Eve. It is Christmas Eve, 1914 and on the Western Front there are three regiments of soldiers holding the line; French, Scottish and the invading Germans. None are happy to still be in the trenches when most believed the war would have ended long before the holidays; and through an unpredictable set of circumstances the regiments find their commanding officers meeting in the no man’s land between the trenches to call a truce.

It is the power of music that brings these opposing soldiers together. The German side of the story follows an Opera singer, Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Furmann, “The Order”), who is looked down upon by his commanding officer for being an artist. Sprink’s wife, Anna (Diane Kruger, “National Treasur”), uses her fame to arrange a vocal performance on Christmas Eve by her and her husband at the German command center near the front. Sprink then brings his wife to the front to sing for the soldiers. When the Scottish hear the singing they join in with bagpipe accompaniment, and soon the three commanding officers are meeting to call a truce for one night only.

The Christmas Eve festivities are brief and the officers agree that on the following morning the fighting must resume. The leaders do not anticipate the bonds that form between the men, however, during that night of sharing in Christmas tradition. In fact it seems as if it is the officers themselves who are most affected by knowing their enemy. Soon they are taking another day off to exchange and bury their dead. They warn each other about bombing raids and provide shelter from artillery to each other.

There are a great many subplots throughout the film that flesh out the characters and give them all a level of humanity deeper than can be seen in most war films. I liked many of the details that were revealed about the lead characters in each group as the story unfolded: the French Lieutenant Audebert’s (Guillaume Canet, “The Beach”) relationship with a French General who checks up on him, the Scottish soldier Johnathan’s (Steven Robertson, “Kingdom of Heaven”) refusal to accept friendship with the Germans after the death of his hometown friend in battle, and the fact that the German Lieutenant Horstmayer (Daniel Bruhl, “Good Bye Lenin!”) is Jewish and has a French wife.

The direction by writer Christian Carion is much more sophisticated than the rather sentimental subject matter might suggest. The battle sequence near the beginning of the film could substitute in any war film about the harsh reality of combat. Plus, Carion throws in subtle flashes of style that underlay great substance beneath the film’s cheery message. When Johnathan rushes out of his local parish after delivering the “good news” that they will be going to war with the Germans, all the candles the priest Palmer (Gary Lewis, “Gangs of New York”) has just lit are blown out by the swinging door. Also the film opens with a speech given by a German schoolboy about how evil the British are. That Speech is repeated almost verbatim near the end of the film by a Scottish Bishop blessing new recruits before they are sent up to the front.

The sentimental premise of this film might throw some serious film goers off; however, it is based upon several documented cases of truces called between lines during that first Christmas Eve of WWI. But the film itself has depth far beyond the notion that we are all the same and can overcome our differences if we just have the inspiration. Carion’s film is a fully realized story with the Christmas Eve truce providing only one aspect of these soldier’s lives. Their emotional journeys are served by what they bring to the war and take away from it, rather than just what happens to them during the war. This is a holiday film with its message of hope, but it is also a film that fully realizes the human spirit, both good and bad.

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