Year of Release: 2005
Directed By: Christian Carion
Genre: War / Drama
Based on a real Christmas Truce between British, German, and French armed forces on the Western Front of WWI in 1914, “Joyeux Noel” demonstrates the touching and humane parts of war, besides its destructive side. Starring Benno Fürmann as Private Nikolaus Sprink (German tenor), Guillaume Canet as Lieutenant Camille René Audebert (French Regiment), Diane Kruger as Anna Sørensen (Danish soprano, Sprink’s wife), Gary Lewis as Father Palmer (Scottish priest), Alex Ferns as Lieutenant Gordon (Scottish Regiment), Dany Boon as Private Ponchel, Daniel Brühl as Lieutenant Horstmayer (German Regiment), the movie centers around the concept of fraternal bond and diplomatic affairs among soldiers. Even though they are in a time of war and chaos, diplomatic relation is an essential tool among the regiments in a multilingual setting. In other words, they are able to understand one another’s situation without speaking the same language, as they are capable of sharing the same frustration of war and being separated from their loved ones.
In the beginning, the movie sets out an aggressive tone with the scenes of French, German and British schoolchildren reciting nationalistic statements against their enemies. In my opinion, the least noticeable but the most remarkable symbols in these successive scenes are the geographical maps of their countries. The consecutive maps not only show the geographical area of France, Germany, and Great Britain but also their colonies around the world. These sequences of the plot focalize how schoolchildren from different countries are being exposed to imperialistic discourse, by dehumanizing their opponents. In one scene, rightfully, the French child states his country’s occupied part is a “disgrace” and promises to bring back the children of Alsace, freeing it from the Germans. The occupied part in question, Alsace, was the subject of a critical border dispute between Germany and France long before WWI.
In the next scene, the German kid makes statements against Germany’s sole enemy Great Britain, standing next to a model globe on the desk. Let’s keep this in mind, one of the main reasons for WWI was because of “imperialism”, the desire to control enormous masses of foreign lands and people. Moving on, in the following scene, the British school child vows to exterminate all of the Germans and the other “barbarians”.
These three interrelated scenes are in a dialogue with one another, showing the aggressive attitude of the countries in question toward each other. However, the plot slowly shifts these hostile stances towards amicable, diplomatic understanding among the soldiers on the frontline. This understanding flourishes from using diplomacy, music, belief, religion, respect, friendship, and longing for the old times with their beloved families.
Music as a diplomatic tool, especially opera and old folk songs, is a strong storytelling device in the story. Private Nikolaus Sprink, the German tenor, is the key element in this peaceful truce. The character is inspired by the real lead singer of Berlin Imperial Opera, Walter Kirchhoff, and the whole plot is fictionalized around the real-life event of the German Crown Prince sending him to the frontline to boost soldiers’ morale in Christmas, December 1914.
Therefore, the first steps of the truce begin with the Scottish forces joining him singing with bagpipes. The song they sing with Sprink, “Silent Night, Holy Night”, is a famous Christmas carol around Europe. The German version is called “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht”, and “Douce Nuit, Sainte Nuit” in French. Having three versions in French, English, and German makes it a significant song for Christmas at a time like that. And three lieutenants shake hands to agree to make an unofficial truce. After that, the majority of the soldiers start to share chocolate, alcohol, and stories with each other, they even show the photos of their wives, whom they reluctantly left behind. When German Lieutenant Horstmayer hands Lieutenant Audebert’s lost wallet and Audebert looks at the photo of his pregnant wife, it becomes a moment of pouring their hearts out. They all understand that they need to endure and survive for their families. French and German Lieutenants agree to visit each other as tourists after the war ends. Because they are sure that war would end one day eventually. It might be astonishing but military diplomacy with the enemy can be adjusted if there is a deal on the common ground. As a matter of fact, they further agree to extend the truce and bury the dead out of respect on Christmas day, suggesting their mutual respect for their loss.
At the end of the movie, both sides are punished for being cooperative with the enemy without getting permission from their superiors. The aftermath of the peace truce is tragic to all of them involved in this humane bond. Sprink and Anna decide to run away together to avoid punishment because of their disobedience. Private Ponchel, who visited the occupied part to see his mother with the help of a German soldier, is shot to death as he is mistaken for a German soldier. The French Lieutenant is disapproved by his superior officer – at the same time his father- for operating an unofficial cease-fire with the Germans. Lieutenant Audebert confronts his father about the tough situation on the front lines and how all of them needed this bond to endure the hardships. German soldiers are punished by being sent to the Eastern Front, without seeing their families. The movie ends with the scene of German soldiers singing a folk song, which they learned from the Scots, as they are being shipped to another frontline.
What is suggested from the ceasefire agreement is that contrary to their hostility and constant attacks towards each other, peace is inevitable. It would eventually take place, once they start to see that the enemy is a human with flesh and blood. Although all of the sides in combat use peace for their own interests, it slowly turns into a bilateral necessity for survival. The “Live and Let Live” mindset was unofficially widespread among soldiers on the Western Front of WWI, yet it is still one of the most detrimental events in our history.
In conclusion, the unofficial multilateral diplomatic agreement, among the French, German and Scottish Regiments, has a major role in maintaining the balance of peace and conflict on the battlefield. At the time of the Christmas truce, an official agreement to a cease-fire was not brought up as a topic. Yet, as it is seen from the example, diplomacy is not only a tool to retain peace but also a significant decisive factor that shifts the course of events. The characters in Joyeux Noel spontaneously put diplomacy into practice at a hard time, rather than engaging in combat. And they succeed to resolve the conflict thanks to their adherence to diplomacy.
Nazlı Şevval Öztürk
Diplomasi Çalışmaları Staj Programı