Merry Christmas (Joyeux Noël)



   116 minutes
France/Germany/UK/Belgium/Romania (2005)


Diane Kruger , Benno Fürmann , Guillaume Canet , Gary Lewis , Dany Boon , Daniel Brühl , Lucas Belvaux , Bernard Le Coq , Alex Ferns , Thomas Schmauser , Steven Robertson

directed by

Christian Carion

 Enemies overcome their differences for one night in the winter of 1914 in this WWI drama featuring stars from Germany, France and the UK

The most powerful WWI films are the earliest - notably Abel Gance's J'Accuse! (1919), Lewis Milestone's All Quiet On The Western Front (1930) and Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion (1937). More recent cinematic ventures about the Great War have included the adaptations of Pat Barker's Regeneration and Sébastien Japrisot's A Very Long Engagement. Neither achieved the power of the older films, and nor does Merry Christmas, Christian Carion's ambitious, well-meaning treatment of the informal truce that came about during the Christmas of 1914.

The film for the most part is set in a small area of trench occupied by French and Scottish soldiers on one side, and Germans on the other, no more than 50 metres apart. Among the soldiers are renowned German tenor Nikolaus Sprink (Fürmann), who was drafted as a private and is at odds with his officer, Horstmayer (Brühl), French lieutenant Audebert (Canet), son of the area's major general, and Scottish priest Palmer (Lewis).

It's business as usual for them - attacks, counter-attacks, muddy degradation - until Christmas comes around, when Sprink's lover and fellow singer Anna Sörensen (Kruger) performs for the Kronprinz (Schmauser) near the front. Sprink then insists he has to go and sing for the troops too. Anna accompanies him back to the trenches.

When the German troops put their Christmas trees on the parapet, one nervous poilu (French grunt) remarks, "Something odd is afoot," since they've all been lead to believe attacks may come. Instead, Sprink starts singing, and soon is accompanying the Scots pipers with renditions of shared carols. It's not long before the men are climbing up and fraternising. "The outcome of this war won't be decided tonight," agree the officers. More singing ensues, food and drink is shared, and Palmer gives a service ("the most important mass of my life") - despite the fact that everything they are doing is treasonous. On Christmas Day, they continue the informal truce, providing a chance to bury the corpses left littering no-man's land and to play some football.

It's very moving, even if Paul McCartney did pre-empt it with the video for 1983's 'Pipes Of Peace', which visualised the semi-legendary but largely true events of Christmas 1914. Writer-director Christian Carion, who grew up in northern France in one of the areas occupied by Germany during WWI, was inspired by reading a passage entitled 'The Incredible Winter Of 1914' in a book by Yves Buffetaut. This author helped the filmmaker access real documents, leading to the addition of some remarkable details such as a cat that roamed between the lines. (In reality such a cat was executed as a spy. Carion filmed the sequence, then cut it out). Other roles - a Scots priest and a tenor - also seem based in fact.

Sadly, Carion can't maintain the credibility throughout. The suggestion of a beautiful Danish opera diva hanging out with the troops stretches credulity. Nor can the film quite muster the requisite sense of scale - there's no feeling that the front, this zone of mud, horror and depredation, stretches beyond the frame, let alone along miles of contested border. Nor does the film have much in the way of a plot. There's a story of sorts, but no strong thread among the vignettes of officers chatting about Paris , men showing each other photos of their wives and enemies sheltering in each others' trenches.

Nevertheless, Merry Christmas is a heartfelt story of men who managed to find camaraderie and humanity in the face of the torrent of bellicose rhetoric coming from their respective authorities - something that's hideously hammered home by a priest played by Ian Richardson at the end: "With God's help you must kill the Germans".