Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Sanity during war will not be tolerated

By Edward Copeland
At last, I caught up with the fifth of the five 2005 Oscar nominees for foreign language film by getting to see Joyeux Noel, France's entry in last year's contest. Now that I've seen all five, I'm pleased to say that four out of the five were worthy picks, though I'd still go with the winner, Tsotsi, as the best of the lot.

Released theatrically in the U.S. in 2006, Joyeux Noel tells yet another war story, only this time it takes World War I as its setting as it tells the true story about how on Christmas Eve 1914, German, French and Scottish troops facing off in trench warfare forged an unexpected truce and even more surprising sympathy for their "enemy."

In some respects, Joyeux Noel reminded me of Keith Gordon's unsung 1992 film A Midnight Clear, only set in a different war, with a more factual basis but with plenty of spirit and snow in common.

The film, written and directed by Christian Carion, starts out typically enough for a war film, until a subplot surfaces about a German soldier's girlfriend (Diane Kruger) who is being sneaked into the trenches to see her beloved Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Furmann) on Christmas Eve. Both happen to be part of the Berlin Opera and his joy can't prevent him from bursting out in holiday song, which prompts an Anglican priest from Scotland (Gary Lewis, the father in Billy Elliot) in a neighboring trench to haul out his bagpipes to accompany him.

This could all come off as sickeningly sweet (and did they really let troops carry bagpipes off to the trenches with them?), but somehow it works. It's touching watching the warring factions sing, drink and eventually look out for one another until superiors step in to insist that there's a war to be fought.

Joyeux Noel won't be everyone's cup of tea (or champagne or ale), since its antiwar message is painted on so thickly, but it touched me. Maybe nearly four years of the insane carnage in Iraq has made me a sucker for simpler times of war where people might be able to understand one another.

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i'm interested to know which of the 5 you don't think deserved it's nod.

i haven't caught them all yet myself.
Don't Tell was the only one I didn't like.
Being interested in World War One as a historical period (as this war was a clear sample that wars aren't any good), I always keep an eye on films about the subject.

While not the first class (or indeed as pungent) as WW1 classics as Kubrick's Paths of Glory" or Tavernier's "La Vie et rien d'autre", "Joyeux Noel" brings to wider audiences the dramatization of a little known historic episode, which happened throughout the war (though never approved by the generals). Sometime ago I read a book by Tony Ashworth, "Trench Warfare, 1914-18: The Live and Let Live System" which was a study, from testimonials and written accounts, of the attitudes of Great War combatants towards the enemies in the trench across no-man's land. The author concluded that, when not actually involved in fighting, many soldiers adopted an unnoficial truce (if only in the "don't bother me and I won't bother you" principle) and their offensive spirit was far from what their superiors in the rear desired

P.S: Having just read your old post on "Don't Tell", I can tell you something about dubbing in Europe or, at least the Spanish case. In Spain, people is normally very reticent to see films in the original subtitled version, so the great majority of films are released dubbed (with only some copies for the small -but growing- sector of the audience who prefers to listen the actors' original voices). It is perhaps not illogical that the level of knowledge of foreign languages in Spain leaves much to desire. Dubbing is, on the other hand, a good and plentiful (foreign films, commercials...) option for Spanish stage actors to make ends meet, as they often have good, well trained, charactheristic and modulated voices. In contrast, a number of Spanish film actors -too many, to my taste- seem to have been born for silent movies: it's sad how they decline to work their voices proper to match their -otherwise good- gestual and facial expressivity. Javier Bardem is -to me- an example of a good actor whose voice and delivery sound somewhat flat to me.
Of course, I can't vouch for the historical accuracy of the event, though accounts I've read say the movie embellishes to some extent but that it did happen. It wouldn't surprise me that something like this could happen in isolation in any war, especially given the reaction of the higher-ups in the military command once they learn about it. German troops could be rampaging elsewhere but in this isolated area, I imagine it could have happened.
The events in Joyeux Noel certainly did occur in a number of places along the front and as the film describes the participants on both sides were punished afterwards.

Unofficial truces were common on the Western Front - to bring in wounded and dead and such like. But what makes the Christmas truces of 1914 different is that they were genuine expressions of Christmas spirit amongst the ordinary combatants. In those days Christmas perhaps meant more than it does today and the reaching out between combatants was a genuine expression of that. It wasn't unusual in earlier wars for such truces to occur - they were commonplace. Perhaps what's different is the generals banning what for the soldiers was a normal and reasonable expectation based on past expectations. Alas the soldiers soon learnt that Christmas had no place in a modern industrial war like WW1.

I enjoyed Joyeux Noelle for what it really was, a Christmas film and a film about WW1, perhaps one of the better of the recent crop of them made in the last ten years, second only perhaps to "Beneath Hill 60".

PS yes Scottish troops did have bagpipes in the trenches. Piper was an official rank in Scottish regiments. The pipes were both used for amusement and to accompany them into battle.
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