' ' Cinema Romantico: Joyeux Noel

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Joyeux Noel

If Christian Carion's 2005 film was just that, a film, it would be difficult to believe. That it is, in fact, based on a true story makes it all that much more unbelievable. It is Christmas, 1914, in the trenches along the western front of WWI and things out there are brutal as we have seen in a Scottish/French assault on the Germans that ends with roaring machine gun fire and blood and the brother of one of our characters being left for dead in the perilous ground of No Man's Land between the two entrenchments. Perhaps it is because of this brutality the famed Danish opera star Anna Sorensen (Diane Kruger) proposes a recital at headquarters out at the front on Christmas Eve? Or perhaps it is so she can re-unite with her former co-singing star, Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Furmann), now a private in the German army, who doubles as her lover, her liebhaber, a ruse through which the German commander sees when he advises "You will only have one night with him. What can it mean?" Her response is eloquent and perfect: "Our minutes are longer than yours."

Upon concluding their recital (the lip synching of Kruger and Furmann is unfortunately awkward) Nikolaus and Anna retire back to his trench where he promised to indulge his fellow men of war in a little tenor when the strangest, eeriest thing happens. As Nikolaus offers a rendition of that holiday classic "Silent Night", a Scot, Palmer (Gary Lewis), across the way offers accompaniment in the form of his bagpipes and so Nikolaus gathers up a small Christmas tree and, singing all the way, leaves behind the safety of his trench to cross into the middle of No Man's Land to leave the tree as a sort of peace offering. Soon the officers in charge, French Lieutenant Audebert (Guillaume Canet), German Lieutenant Horstmayer (Daniel Bruhl) and Scottish Lieutenant Gordon (Alex Ferns) and are meeting in No Man's Land to broker a ceasefire, just for Christmas Eve, which leads to a refreshing toast of champagne.

The soldiers from each side cross the hard snow to come face to face, weapons laid down even though they are in hand, chattering nervously. This leads to a Christmas Eve Mass administered by Palmer as these men all willingly stand side by side. The ceasefire extends through the 25th as the enemies kick around a soccer ball and allow proper burials for the other side's dead.

Quickly they learn it will not be easy to flip that switch back to indifferent mercenaries bent on shooting each other to shreds. In the film's most mesmerizing setpiece, low key, moving and hysterical, the Germans warn the Scots and French of a forthcoming artillery shelling and invite them to their trench for protection. Upon conclusion of the shelling it is suggested the Scots and French will likely counter with a shelling of their own at which point all three sides traipse back the way they came for shelter.

Word eventually makes its way back to HQ about these peaceful shenanigans and reprimands are inevitable, including a moment wherein the Anglican Bishop (Ian Richardson) declares God likes us, not them, and while we are not shown the scene no doubt a German Bishop on the other side is proclaiming the exact same sentiment.

Strangely, however, a movie with such an uplifting, humanistic theme never comes across as uplifting or as humanistic as it might. You watch and you want to be moved to the depth of your being, you want be swept off to its time and place, but no sweep is ever generated. Instead it becomes lost in No Man's Land between incisively realistic and romantically heightened, a well filmed and well acted Christmas pageant where everyone gets their "moment" without becoming transcendent in the manner of the event it chronicles.  Still, a man must be honest, and I was thankful to see it if simply because the mere thought that something like this - however accurately it was or wasn't captured in this film - can happen reinforces the naive notion to which I cling that people are inherently good.

Here's to wishing this Christmas your minutes are longer than theirs.

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