The Incarnation and War
For the second year in a row, a Christmas-themed film will be released nine months early, or three months late, depending on how you look at it. In 2005 it was the charming family film Millions and on March 3 the French Academy Award – nominated film Joyeux Noël will open in New York and Los Angeles and then in select cities nation-wide.
The Great War
Europe in 1914 was simmering for war and there are many theories about its causes. Most historians trace the origins of The Great War, or World War I, to Prince Otto von Bismark (b. 1815 – dd. 1898), the Prime Minister of Prussia (1862-1890) and then Chancellor of the German Empire that he created. In his desire to unify independent Germanic states and principalities into one nation he orchestrated intricate alliances between them as well as with the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman (Turkey) Empires. Nationalism was on the rise as other European states got rid of monarchies in view of establishing government by the people. Add to this precarious situation the dependence on the unreliable telegraph and slow-traveling ambassadors for communication between governments. The cauldron was soon to boil over.
On June 28, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo when he tried to assert his authority over unruly provinces. This event triggered the war. As Barbara Tuchman narrates in her 1962 Pulitzer Prize-winning military history The Guns of August, Germany then mobilized seven armies in the first few days of August. Their aim was to sweep through Europe and occupy its heart: Paris.
The first of the allies to unite to thwart Germany were the British Empire, France, and Russia. The Allies and Germans waged war through series of opposing trenches along the Western Front that stretched from the British Channel to the Swiss border, through Belgium and Luxembourg, and parts of industrialized France; in between them lay no-man’s land.
The First Christmas of the Great War
Joyeux Noël begins in Scotland. A young man, Jonathan (Steven Robertson), dashes into a church sacristy where his younger brother William (Robin Laing) is repairing statues with Reverend Palmer (Gary Lewis). Jonathan tells his brother that war has been declared and that he has enlisted and signed up William, too. Jonathan is ecstatic because now something exciting will happen in their dull lives.
Later, in France, the reluctant Lieutenant Audebert (Guilleaume Canet) receives orders from a general (Bernard Le Coq) who travels in disguise behind enemy lines. Audebert’s young wife is expecting a baby and he has not heard from her in months. Audebert’s orderly, Ponchel (Dany Boon), carries an alarm clock that goes off every morning at 10 am to remind him of home.
In December, on an unnamed battlefield, a division of Scots are soon entrenched next to their French allies. Across the “no man’s land” are German troops, led by Lt. Horstmeyer (Daniel Bruhl) who is Jewish. As Christmas Eve draws near, the men retreat to their trenches after a bloody battle. Jonathan has been mortally wounded and William is distressed beyond all telling.
One of the German soldiers, a man named Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Furmann), is also a renowned tenor. He is ordered to headquarters to sing for Kaiser Wilhelm’s son. There Sprink meets his inamorata, a soprano named Anna Sorensen (Diane Jruger.) The next day they go to the front together to sing for the troops in the trenches that have incongruously decorated by dozens of Christmas trees sent by the German high command.
As Sprink intones “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night) the Scots and French become silent; theythink the Germans are playing a trick. Reverend Palmer, who has accompanied his villagers to war, picks up the bagpipes to accompany Sprink. Other bagpipers join in and the men in the trenches begin to sing. Sprink then climbs out of the trench with a Christmas tree in hand. One by one the other soldiers climb out of the trenches and stand in non-man’s-land looking at one another. Someone breaks out a bottle of cheer and some chocolate; the three commanding officers decide to call a truce for Christmas Eve.
The truce leads to the burial of the dead, a prayer service, and a soccer match.
Truth or fact?
Joyeux Noel is a compressed, fictionalized version of events that took place along the Western Front as well as in Turkey at Christmas, 1914, Easter, 1915 and to a lesser extent at Christmas that year. The French director Christian Carion wrote the script inspired by a chapter in a book entitled Battles of Flanders and Artois 1914 – 1918 by Yves Buffetaut. With Buffetaut’s assistance, Carion researched the original accounts for himself in archived letters, journals, and newspapers because the truth seemed stranger than fiction. “The events inspired characters that truly existed, as well as fictitious people I had to invent,” states Carion. “Sometimes the harsh reality was too much, too absurd. This was the case with the story of the cat who roamed from one trench to another and in the film ended up being imprisoned. In reality, the tom cat was accused of spying and was arrested by the French army and then shot according to regulations.” Carion filmed the execution, but it did not make the final cut. The story of the Christmas trees is also true; it is documented that Kaiser Wilhelm insisted that even at the front, “…in times of war, values should be maintained!”
To review a film “based on fact” is always a challenge because audiences want to know what was real and what was not. “Based on fact”, “real events”, or “Inspired by a true story” are signals that the filmmaker has taken artistic license to demonstrate the truth in two hours even if the facts have been changed or manipulated. The slightly implausible opera singers in the film (the lip-synching is a little off) are fictitious yet their purpose is to facilitate the telling of the story, to enable the audience to relate emotionally to the situation of soldiers and the people they left behind, to move the story towards its climax, and to leave us with a sense of the truth of what happened so long ago.
The Truth and Religion of War
Joyeux Noel dramatizes for 21st century audiences the horror – and humanity – of World War I (August 1914 – November 1918) in much the same way as Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film Paths of Glory did fifty years ago and Peter Weir did with Gallipoli in 1981. These films (and others) let us experience what the filmmakers imagine that war to have been like through a few characters so that we can see, hear, and feel the greater truth about a war in which 18 million soldiers and civilians died.
In Paths of Glory Kirk Douglas played a fictitious Colonel Dax who along with his men refused to obey senseless orders – a decision for which they were made to suffer greatly. Gallipoli (Turkey) continues the tale of the stupidity of military leadership. The film uses two fictitious Australian characters (played by Mark Lee and a very young Mel Gibson) to tell about the allied campaign to capture Constantinople (February 1915 – January 1916.) It is estimated that over 44,000 allied soldiers were killed or died from disease and almost 100,000 were wounded in that ongoing battle, including 11,000 from Australia and New Zealand; 87,000 Ottoman soldiers were killed and 165,000 wounded. The campaign was always going to be impossible and it was a hopeless failure. (Neither of these outstanding films was nominated for an Academy Award.)
Joyeux Noel does not focus on the generals; instead the role of religion in war is emphasized. When the British, French, and German commands discover the fraternization between enemies, there are consequences. The Germans are sent to the Russian front without leave; the French unit is disbanded and the men assigned to other battalions; Reverend Gordon’s bishop (Ian Richardson) shows up to send him back in shame to his parish in Scotland.
The bishop preaches a sermon to the new recruits dehumanizing and demonizing the enemy so that the soldiers will have a reason to do their duty and kill them. Gordon removes his cross, unable to reconcile his beliefs with the bishop’s use of religion for the sake of war.
James Hillman wrote in his 2004 book A Terrible Love of War (Penguin Press, New York, p. 182) that, “Theology of God and psychology of belief reinforce each other…. So when war clouds gather, religious belief electrifies the air.”
The Meaning of the Incarnation
Joyeux Noel deliberately sets out to massage our emotions, as all movies do in one way or another. Yet we know that the enemies did fraternize at Christmas and Easter during World War I. Although not a religious film per se, it is impossible for the thoughtful viewer not to make a connection between faith and life when watching Joyeux Noel.
While it is about Christmas, the solemn and heart-breaking context that evokes the movie’s Christmas joy is ultimately a story for mature teens and adults. Joyeux Noel is a “great round table” around which people of good will can gather to dialogue about things that matter, as Pope Benedict XVI wrote on January 24, 2006 in his Message for World Communications Day.
The film’s theology is incarnational because it makes us look up from our tears to think about how we live our faith in the here and now, and to ask whether the coming of Jesus Christ into the world meant anything a hundred years ago – and what, if anything, it means today.