It can’t be easy making films about war. It’s so inherently dramatic that, as a setting for art, it’s overdetermined; it drips with meaning even before the first scenes are set. And so much has been said already: War is hell. War is noble. War is surreal. War is absurd, a necessary evil, an inevitable evil, a pointless tragedy. Most war movies operate with a couple of the above assertions, since a hellish war gains meaning when it’s noble (World War II) and an absurd war becomes criminal when it’s hell (Vietnam).
Merry Christmas (Joyeux Noël), a moving and exceptionally well-crafted film from French writer-director Christian Carion, is not innovative in its portrayal of war. Based on the true story of an impromptu Christmas Eve truce during World War I, it establishes the horrors of trench warfare with the usual gunmetal grays and grimly resigned expressions. But except for a few missteps, the movie is so beautifully and sensitively rendered in its particulars, in its characterizations of soldiers and officers, and in its dramatization of a nearly miraculous event, that the result is an affecting piece of cinema.
It begins in 1914, on the eve of war, and deftly characterizes its key players. First we meet Sprink (Benno Fürmann), a German opera singer called into service despite his colossal fame. In Scotland, we’re introduced to two brothers, William (Robin Laing) and Jonathan (Steven Robertson), the first of whom is thrilled that “At last, somethin’s happenin’ in our lives.” With them is Palmer, their parish priest (Gary Lewis), a compassionate soul who follows the boys into the trenches to supply support and counsel. In the French camp, there’s Audebert (Guillaume Canet), a buttoned-up lieutenant who hides his grief about his pregnant wife, whom he has not heard from in months, and Ponchel (Danny Boon), the aide-de-camp whose farmhouse is mere kilometers from the front — but behind German lines.
In no time, Merry Christmas turns to the trenches — bitterly cold, stunningly violent, and shockingly close to both ally and enemy — and then moves to the crux of the story, the truce. Such a thing really happened, following a pattern of impromptu fraternizations in which soldiers tossed cigarettes and chocolate to the same people they had earlier stormed and bombed. On December 24, 1914, on the front lines in occupied France, the Germans, French, and Scots agreed to a one-night truce. It ended up lasting several days, in which the men played soccer, drank, shared stories, and buried their dead. According to Carion, 99 percent of the real-life fraternizations happened through song, and that’s how the writer-director brings his troops together. Sprink leads the German camp in carols; when the other side hears, they sing along.
So begins the most moving portion of the film, in which all three camps take brave and honest chances, trusting the enemy to hold the truce and not use it as an opportunity for a surprise attack. And of course, the absurdity of armed conflict is thrown into immediate relief. The men welcome their adversaries with painfully easy warmth. When they play soccer, it’s practically an advertisement for sports as a humane surrogate for nationalistic aggression. And when they share a Christmas Mass and establish a cemetery for the dead, we can only gnash our teeth at the sheer idiocy of their circumstances — that men who know how to be good to one another are instead forced to kill.
Carion understands two critical things about his subject: first, that it’s the story of people affected by the war, not those who created it. (He depicts Germany’s crown prince as a spoiled, effete, and oblivious child.) And second, Carion knows that the sharpest tool in the war filmmaker’s box is understatement. Once in a while, he goes too far; Palmer sheds tears when he hears that war has broken out, and the candles he has lit are extinguished by an unseen force. (Ugh.) But most of the time, we get a crisp script with gorgeously controlled performances from the actors, including rising star Daniel Brühl (previously of Good Bye Lenin!) as the German commander, and an excellent Guillaume Canet.
Merry Christmas is also expert at juggling a host of nationalities, languages, characters, and stories; its seamless transitions divide our sympathies between the opposing sides. At the same time, the film foreshadows the Second World War with subtle, chilling references. In a scene designed to display the idiocy of Palmer’s bishop, we hear this cruel and misguided sermon: “With God’s help, you must kill the Germans, good or bad, young or old, so it won’t have to be done again.” Merry Christmas‘ position is that it isn’t godly to kill anyone for any reason, and yet … we know what’s coming.
So does Merry Christmas refrain from taking any side but the human. It’s an impressive film, accomplished at humanizing an experience that, while played out on an international stage, is inevitably personal.