Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas)
Written By: Christian Carion
Directed By: Christian Carion
US Theatrical Release: March 3, 2006 (Sony Pictures Classics)
US DVD Release: November 14, 2006
Running Time: 1:55:56 (29 chapter stops)
Rating: PG-13 (For Some War Violence and a Brief Scene of Sexuality/ Nudity)
Video: 2.35:1 Anamorphic (Extra Features: 1.85:1 non-anamorphic)
Audio: English/ German/ French DD5.1 (Extra Features: French DD2.0; commentary is English DD2.0)
Subtitles: English, Spanish, Portuguese (Extra Features: English, Spanish, Portuguese; commentary is subtitled only in Spanish and Portuguese)
TV-Generated Closed Captions: None (Extra Features: None)
Menus: Not animated.
Packaging: Standard keepcase; no insert.
THE WAY I FEEL ABOUT IT: 3.5/5
Thinking about the places One Would Not Want To Be At, a trench on the western front of World War I is pretty high on the list. The image is of cannon fodder cowering in a muddy hole while artillery shells and machine gun fire pass overhead. Stories of heroism and valor are rarely heard – poems reflecting helplessness and despair make up the literature of the trenches. But there was one fairly well-known incident (actually, a series of incidents) that brought some measure of humanity and a few brief moments of peace to the troops. Joyeux Noël takes its inspiration from those incidents, amalgamating several true but separate details into a fictional yet faithful recreation.
The Great War was perhaps the last major conflict unrelated to ideological differences. The monarchs and empires of Europe had been itching for the dominance and glory found only through warfare for years, and when the spark presented itself in the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Crown Prince, they jumped at the chance. For the people who fought in the trenches, despite the urgings of their leaders, the war was no crusade of right versus wrong, of good versus evil. It was simply their chance at a little of the adventure they’d read about in books. They had no idea what horrors they were about to face. But there was one thing about the trenches that nobody foresaw: the opposing forces were camped so close together, in many cases able to see and hear each other at all times, that they occasionally forgot to kill one another.
A few months after the start of the war, when the lines are just settling into place but the landscape is not yet utterly devastated, small units of French and Scottish troops face their German counterparts across a tiny no-man’s-land. Occasional attempts to advance are marked by the fact that tactics have not yet caught up to the defensive technology of the machine gun, so the soldiers spend most of their time simply waiting for the next bombardment.
Far behind the lines, Danish singer Anna Sörensen (Diane Kruger) manages to convince the German leadership to bring her lover, tenor Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann), back from the front in order to entertain the Crown Prince. Her goal is simple: to be reunited with Sprink. However, her scheme will lead to much more. For Nikolaus insists on returning to the front to sing for his comrades, and Anna is not about to let him out of her sight so quickly.
On Christmas Eve, 1914, Sprink is back with his unit in France. The German high command has ordered that the trenches be adorned with thousands of tiny Christmas trees, which are the only reminder of the holiday in the filthy dugouts. Surrounded by the candlelit shrubbery, Sprink regales the men with a few choice carols.
A few meters away, a bagpipe-armed Scottish chaplain named Palmer (Gary Lewis) hears the beautiful music wafting from the enemy trench and is struck with inspiration – he fires up the pipes and begins to accompany the singer. Overcome by the moment, Sprink grabs one of the trees and walks out into no-man’s land – almost certain suicide. But the spirit of the holiday has taken hold, and the Scotsmen across the way greet him with applause instead of bullets.
Sensing an opportunity, the ranking Scottish and German officers, Lieutenant Gordon (Alex Ferns ) and Oberst Horstmayer (Daniel Brühl) join Sprink in the open and decide to consider a temporary local cease-fire. Their French counterpart, Lieutenant Audebert (Guillaume Canet) soon arrives to find out what’s going on. Before long, all three units have ventured out of their trenches, exchanging drinks and photographs instead of ordnance. Brought together by the power of music, the men enjoy a few fleeting moments of brotherhood before returning to the carnage of the war.
Although the characters in Joyeux Noël are fictional, their scenes are mostly based on true events. Writer/ director Christian Carion did his research, poring through memoirs and letters to learn what really happened. Stories of fraternization between opposing troops during Christmas were not uncommon, providing plenty of source material. Judging from the background information provided in the commentary track, just about everything that occurs in the film reflects something that actually happened somewhere along the line at some point in the war. In fact, several speeches in the film are taken directly from historical records. It all makes for a compelling story, although things play out rather episodically.
THE WAY I SEE IT: 3/5
For the most part, the image is pretty decent. The soldiers and their world of dirt and mud look grim and realistic. However, things look a bit processed much of the time. There is a fair amount of edge enhancement, and some digital noise is present. It isn’t all that bad, but the bit rate could probably have been a little higher.
THE WAY I HEAR IT: 4/5
There is more singing than battle action, and the audio covers all the bases well. Directional effects are put to good use where appropriate, with enough LFE to be felt. Dialogue sounds fine, as does the score.
THE SWAG: 2/5 (rating combines quality and quantity)
Commentary With Writer/ Director Christian Carion
This excellent track goes into a fair amount of detail about the historical basis for the script, on a scene-by-scene basis. Carion also covers various facets of the production.
Interview With Writer/ Director Christian Carion (16:26)
While watching the film, I wondered about how much of it was true and thought about how I’d research the history of the film’s events. After watching this piece, I didn’t bother. The Q&A here covered just about every question that I had. It’s a fascinating discussion of the true stories that inspired the movie. Some of the information is repeated in the commentary track, but this is very informative and a good alternative if you don’t have 2 hours to devote to the commentary.
The trailers for Curse Of The Golden Flower, Driving Lessons and Why We Fight play automatically when the disc is inserted. They may be skipped.
- Curse Of The Golden Flower (1:23) (DD5.1; 2.35:1 anamorphic)
- Driving Lessons (2:00) (DD5.1; 1.85:1 anamorphic)
- The Italian (1:42) (DD5.1; 1.85:1 anamorphic)
- Who Killed The Electric Car? (2:16) (DD5.1; 1.78:1 anamorphic)
- Why We Fight (1:54) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 anamorphic)
- The Passenger (2:09) (DD2.0; 1.85:1 anamorphic)
- The White Countess (1:56) (DD2.0; 1.85:1 anamorphic)
- The Triplets Of Belleville (2:17) (DD2.0; 1.85:1 anamorphic)
- Bon Voyage (2:10) (DD2.0; 2.35:1 anamorphic)
- Look At Me (1:56) (DD2.0; 2.35:1 non-anamorphic)
- The Devil And Daniel Johnston (2:24) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 anamorphic)
- The Best Of WWII Movies (various titles) (1:53) (DD2.0; multiple aspect ratios squeezed into 1.85:1 non-anamorphic)
- The Pursuit Of Happyness (2:26) (DD5.1; 1.85:1 anamorphic)
- The Holiday (2:30) (DD5.1; 1.85:1 anamorphic)
The Way I Feel About It: 3.5/5
The Way I See It: 3/5
The Way I Hear It: 4/5
The Swag: 2/5
Joyeux Noël is a very different kind of war movie. It isn’t about battle action or political intrigue, and it isn’t an anti-war sermon. Rather, it shines a light on some of the few bright moments in the lives of World War I’s trench soldiers by combining a number of true incidents into a single fictionalized story. This gives the plot a very episodic quality, which maybe limits the impact of the human drama, but it’s still quite interesting as history. The image and sound are decent, if not perfect, and the few extra features are extremely informative. The film may not blow everyone away, but if you are at all interested in the history of the Great War, then you should definitely check it out.