Joyeux Noël


Posted to on February 10, 2006


Scheduled for theatrical release later this year, "Joyeux Noël" is a reenactment of an actual historical event that took place on Christmas Eve in 1914. In the north of France, Scottish and French troops were in one trench and the enemy German troops were arrayed against them not more than 50 yards away--as was often the case in the Great War. That night, as they heard each other singing Christmas carols in each others' language, they were moved to stop fighting for a day and fraternize with each other.


The film opens in three classrooms as Scottish, French and German schoolboys tell their classmates how either the enemy must be wiped off the face of the earth. Moving ahead ten years, we see young men hurrying off to war, in some cases as if they were going to a soccer match.


One of these men is Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann), an opera singer whose solo is interrupted by an announcement that war has begun from a German officer who has mounted the stage. In a fictionalized back-story, Sprink has to leave Anna Sörenson (Diane Kruger), his singing partner and lover, after being drafted. She joins him at the front on Christmas Eve after the top brass decides that it would be good for German morale to hear them sing. The Kaiser has also decided that morale would be bolstered by the presence of Christmas trees in the trenches, so a virtual forest of pine trees with matching decorations is sent out to the beleaguered troops as well. This detail, as well as many in this outstanding film, is borne out by the historical record.


On that fateful night Scottish bagpipers take the first step in a feeling out process that would eventually lead to the men greeting each other as brothers. After hearing them perform a plaintive Christmas tune, the Germans spontaneously applaud. Inspired by the bagpipes, Sprink and Sörenson reply with a duet which the allied troops respond to rapturously from within the innards of the trench. At this point, Sprink takes what appears to be a death-defying initiative. Stepping up from his trench with a lighted Christmas tree in his hands, he advances toward the enemy trenches singing "Stille Nacht" (Silent Night). Although I am generally a rather impassive sort, tears came to my eyes at this point.


Over the next 24 hours, war comes to an end in the snow-covered, desolate no-man's land they are fighting to win control over. They show each other photos of wives and lovers, play soccer, drink each other's liquor and play cards.


Eventually reality sinks in and they are forced to return to killing each other. When the British high command learns of the key role of the Scottish chaplain in bringing about a truce, they ship him off to another unit. To put the troops back on the right track, a Bishop comes in and delivers a sermon on the need to exterminate the enemy. Although this is a minor role, veteran actor Ian Richardson turns in a memorable performance as the bloodthirsty priest. If a film audience had any doubt about the relevance of this film to the current political situation, it is put to rest by his sermon, which includes a reminder that the British are not like their barbaric enemies who attack civilians. It is like listening to Pat Robertson with an Oxonian accent.


Director Christian Carion, who grew up in the region of France where the 1914 Christmas truce took place, was inspired to make this film after discovering "Battles of Flanders and Artois 1914-1918" by Yves Buffetaut, which contained a passage titled "The Incredible Winter of 1914." Buffetaut recounted the fraternizing among the troops, a German tenor being applauded by his enemies, a soccer match, the exchange of photos, etc.


There was one historical detail that he was forced to leave out, even though it was true. He feared that the credulity of audiences would be strained upon discovering the trial for spying and execution of a tom cat shared by the enemy camps! (In the film, he was Nestor to the Scottish and Fritzi to the Germans. Carion decided to cut the trial scene from the film when extras working on the film thought it went overboard.) Of course, if one ever decided to make a film about the war in Iraq, one can easily imagine Carion's footage being salvaged.


Although the film functions more as a pageant than as straightforward drama, it is entirely captivating. While watching it, I was reminded of another WWI antiwar classic: "King of Hearts". In that film, a British foot soldier turns his back on the fighting by disguising himself as a mental patient. That film in turn made me think about "Brokeback Mountain," which also deals with questions about what it means to be normal. How normal is it for two men who love each other to live apart, because society will crucify them? How normal is it for men to kill each other out of abstract notions of patriotism rather than to play soccer or exchange photos? The world we seek is one in which belief in war and homophobia is as outdated as is belief in the devil.




The Guardian (London), November 22, 2005

Last survivor

In 1914 Alfred Anderson witnessed one of the first world war's most remarkable events: Christmas Day truce veteran dies, aged 109


By Gerard Seenan


The last soldier to have served during the first world war's Christmas truce in 1914 died peacefully in his sleep yesterday aged 109.


Alfred Anderson, who was also the oldest man in Scotland, died at a care home in Angus, bringing to an end a life which spanned three centuries and marking the end of a generation who were witness to one of the most remarkable events of the great war. Mr Anderson fought with the 5th Battalion the Black Watch and was the last surviving veteran to have served during the 1914 truce. There are now believed to be only eight survivors of the first world war left in Britain.


The former soldier was 18 when he was sent to the western front. Although he was stationed back from the front lines when the truce broke out, he remembered the silence of temporary peace and shouting out "Merry Christmas" when he and his friends first heard it.


Announcing his death yesterday, the Rev Neil Gardner, minister at his church in Alyth, Perthshire, said: "He was Scotland's oldest man but he remained lucid almost until the end. He was a very gracious and unassuming man. He . . . lived a truly remarkable life."


Shortly after dawn on Christmas Day 1914, the sound of Silent Night, or Stille Nacht, was heard from behind German lines. As the carol ended, a German soldier appeared in no-man's land. "Merry Christmas. We not shoot. You not shoot," he is reported to have said. It was the beginning of an unauthorised truce that would gradually spread across the 500-mile front, where more than a million men were stationed. Soldiers from both sides shook hands, sang carols and played football. In some parts the ceasefire lasted for weeks, but Mr Anderson heard gunfire by afternoon.


Lieutenant Colonel Roddy Riddell, regimental secretary of the Black Watch, said the death of Mr Anderson, whose funeral is expected to take place on Friday, was the "end of an epoch". In 1998, Mr Anderson was awarded France's highest honour, the Legion d'Honneur, for his services during the first world war. In interviews, he said he never forgot the trenches. "I saw so much horror," he told the Observer last year. "I lost so many friends."


Jack McConnell, Scotland's first minister, said the sacrifices that Mr Anderson and his generation of young Scottish men made and the horrors they endured must never be forgotten.