They were told they'd be home by Christmas, but that was back in August, when the thing began. By December, nobody was going anywhere, least of all home. The British, French and German armies were dug into their trenches, each inch of ground paid for in blood. And it was beginning to look like the war Ã?' a "world" war, the first Ã?' might last a while. But wars are fought by soldiers, not generals, and these particular soldiers, close enough to the enemy to hear them talking, called their own truce, a temporary ceasefire that began on Christmas Eve, with the singing of "Silent Night," and continued on Christmas Day, with the exchange of gifts, a Latin Mass, the removal of dead bodies and a game or two of soccer. Suddenly, No Man's Land was a demilitarized zone.
In Joyeux Noel, writer-director Christian Carion attempts to tell this largely overlooked story. Determinedly nonpartisan, the movie drops us into the trenches with a Scottish, a French and a German regiment, introducing characters who might have come out of any number of war movies Ã?' an Anglican priest (Gary Lewis) who's trying to do God's work in a godforsaken landscape, a French lieutenant (Guillaume Canet) who fiercely misses his wife and son, a German opera singer (Benno FÃ?rmann) who can coax the birds out of the trees, the enemy out of their strongholds.
Billed as "inspired by a true story," Joyeux Noel may be too inspired, a little soft in the head. The touchstone is obviously Grand Illusion, Jean Renoir's 1937 prison-camp movie, where a German commandant and a French general find they have more in common with each other than with their own men. But Carion doesn't provide that kind of class analysis, nor does he have Renoir's gift for profundity. And yet there's something about Joyeux Noel that gets to you as these men climb out of their grave-like holes and lift their voices in song, choosing life over death. At that moment, the movie's naÃ?vetÃ? links up with theirs, and Armistice Day comes early. Not everyone chose to participate in this dÃ?tente, however. One who refused, according to historian Stanley Weintraub? An Austrian corporal named Adolf Hitler.