Another Christmas has come and gone. The Christmas dinner’s been eaten, the presents are opened, and the wrapping paper cleaned up. However, there’s still something of the Christmas spirit left before the New Year begins. So BEHIND THE TREE ends with a film filled with the high ideals Christmas holds, so we can bring them with us into 2018. That film is the French war drama, JOYEUX NOEL, based on the Christmas Eve truce of World War I.

The Truce

The Christmas Eve truces occurred in 1914, in what was the Western front of the war. Both sides (French/English and German) were locked in a stalemate in the Aisne Valley of France, with neither side able to gain ground. The two sides remained in the trenches for weeks, with small vestiges of peaceable behavior emerging (time given to collect the dead and exchange rations).

Soldiers began to communicate across the battlements, and on Christmas Eve, the Germans decorated their trenches with candles and Christmas trees. They also sang carols, with the opposing side singing along. Eventually, the two sides met in no man’s land, where they exchanged hastily made gifts and even had football (soccer) matches.

JOYEUZ NOEL

The Movie

JOYEUX NOEL dramatizes the truce, using it to tell a more human story. The film focuses on a small cast– a Scottish priest (Palmer), a trio of French, Scottish, and German lieutenants (Audebert, Gordon, and Horstmayer), a German opera singer (Sprink) and his fiance/singing partner (Anna).  Anna allows Sprink to leave the front and sing for the Kaiser Prince of Germany.

The comfort the High Command enjoys sickens Sprink. He resolves to sing for the men in the trenches. The Scotts hear him and accompany on bagpipes. The three lieutenants arrange a ceasefire for Christmas Eve, allowing the men to fraternize, and for Palmer to deliver a Christmas mass. The truce continues onto Christmas Day, as the soldiers bond, while realizing they will not be able to resume fighting.

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Real Life Storytelling

The message of JOYEUX NOEL works because the story takes time to show how miserable each side is. The characters’ stories add depth as well. Palmer tries to hold to high minded Christian ideals in the hell of war. Audebert struggles with his pregnant wife stuck in German-occupied France.

Sprink and Anna show the misery of their separation and how the war has robbed all the men of joy. It makes the truce even more important as the characters each suffer under the war and desire a reminder of life beyond it.

Horstmayer (played by Zemo himself, Daniel Bruhl) shows this best. He starts the film disliking Sprink for his artistic background and annoyed at the Christmas trees sent to the barracks. However, as the truce is set up, he is respectful to the other lieutenants and even returns Audebert’s missing wallet (which holds a picture of his wife).

He remains a realist throughout the experience, but bonds with the enemy over past vacations in France and the struggle they all face as soldiers. Horstmayer eventually offers the Allies shelter upon learning the Germans guns plan to hit the enemy barracks. It symbolizes the ideas of the movie and the bond that grows between the two sides.

The Power of Peace

The film’s ideas work so well because it takes time to show the outside world as well. The movie begins with school children from each country reciting speeches denouncing the opposing sides, showing how strong the hatred ran during the war. However, it also contrasts with how each side is presented as miserable soldiers in the war.

There is no glory in their actions or their stance; these men are cold, tired, and sick of the war. Sprink and Palmer act as the sole forces pushing them towards something other than war. It’s no surprise Palmer leads the pipers in playing along with Sprink, or how quickly the soldiers not only arrange a truce but also join for something greater.

Joyeux Noel

However, the outside world forces its way back after the sides eventually abandon their posts. Palmer leaves the priesthood after being rebuked by the Bishop (who then delivers a sermon calling the Germans subhuman). Audebert’s superiors send him to Verdun. The Germans go to Russia.

They move through Germany but unable to stop and see their families. The truce left it’s mark though. Audebert rebukes his superior officer (who is also his father), saying, Audebert feels more connected to the Germans than to the generals and civilians who ‘say ‘Kill the Kraut’ over their stuffed turkey!’. Horstmayer and the Germans leave for the front, but do so singing a Scottish song. It’s a powerful image and my favorite part of the film.

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Final Thoughts on JOYEUX NOEL

JOYEUX NOEL is a powerful story about peace in the most unlikely place. It holds a timeless message of how much binds us all, and that even the most different people are still people. In uneasy or easy times, this film has wisdom we would all do to heed. So in that spirit, Bonne Annee, Frohes Neues Jahr, and Happy New Year.

Make it a good one.

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