Photograph by J.C. Lother/Courtesy Nord Quest Production/Sony Pictures Classics
War Isn't Always Hell: Diane Kruger and Benno Fürmann steal a moment of peace in 'Joyeux Noël.'
'Joyeux Noël' recalls peace in war
By Richard von Busack
THE INS AND OUTS of movie distribution are always a puzzle: Joyeux Noël (which was nominated for Best Foreign Film) would have been particularly welcome last Christmas, but in March, when most of us are still paying for the presents, the film's seasonal sentiment doesn't wring the heart the way it might have. Christian Carion's account of the famous Christmas Truce of 1914 is sentimentalized, but smooth, with the elegant restraint typical of the most romantic French films. An example: the noted Danish opera singer Anna Sörensen (Diane Kruger) is trying to get to her beloved, a German private in the trenches. An officer tells her that she shouldn't bother to travel just for a few minutes with her man. The lady responds, "Our minutes are longer than yours."
Without too much stretching, Clarion adds to the legend of the war with a duty-vs.-beauty romance of Sorensen and her former partner Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann). She bears a pass from the Kronprinz, who will be in attendance at the recital of the reunited pair. But during this first Christmas at the front, Sprink really longs to perform for his fellow soldiers. When the two arrive at the trenches, their music helps spur the impromptu cease-fire and exchange of gifts between the enemy lines. Ever after, this instant of solace was contrasted against the four-year-long horror of the war.
Whether the truce was all that romantic is a matter for the historians. A good account can be found at worldwarone.com, which points out that this battlefield was a mud bath, not a white Christmas. In the opening titles, Clarion revisits Impressionist landscapes to sum up the world before the divide of the Great War; but he also makes the Flanders battlefields look clean, too. While we hear references to rats and lice, No Man's Land is ice-bound and white. And when the soldiers emerge from the trenches to bury their dead, Carion goes for a crane shot, and the figures look like the scattered, milling peasants in a Brueghel winter scene.
The director is not really interested in war as suchthe badly edited battle sequence at the beginning shows that. Throughout, he goes slow and ruminative, checking the faces of the soldiers about to board enemy trenches or lingering over the moment of nauseous fear in a lieutenant about to lead them. With unheard-of violence, the Great War taught civilization not to trust profiteers and politicians. With unbelievable speed, the world forgot this lesson. As in L'Auberge Espagnole, Carion is trying for a kind of Eurocinema: he shuttles evenly between the Scottish, German and French trenches, insisting that all have humanity to mourn for. The film's unspoken text: How can bitter, ancestral foes now joined in the European union all get along?
But there's another point. After the truce, punishment follows, as officers break up the regiments that dared to fraternize. Carion includes a war sermon given by a bishop (played by the always supercilious Ian Richardson, looking like a plucked, starved parrot). When we hear him talking about "this crusade, the holy war against those who hide behind women and children," it seems that Carion also wants to point this film's barb at the current demagogues, who persuade soldiers to fight new wars for all the old reasons.
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