Cover of Joyeux Noel (Widescreen)
It is very difficult to kill the enemy once you have seen his face and discovered his humanity. That is what happened during the World War I Christmas Truce of 1914, when French, British, and German troops came up out of their trenches and met one another in no man’s land. And that is the point of Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas), a beautiful film based on the accounts of those who were there.
The film begins with flashbacks of schoolchildren reciting nationalistic litanies of hate, and then shows the war interrupting people’s lives in Scotland, France and Germany. Soon we see soldiers hunkered down in trenches and moving out here and there to slaughter each other. The enemies are near enough to hear one another, and on Christmas Eve, the sound of music coming from the trenches of their foes catches their attention and arouses their curiosity. The German soldiers begin to bring small Christmas trees decorated with lighted candles up out of their trenches. Officers of the three armies meet and agree to a cease-fire for the evening. Soldiers from all sides begin to come out and meet in the middle to exchange gifts of chocolate and wine. They share photographs and stories of their families. A priest with the Scottish unit celebrates a mass in Latin, expressing the Christian faith that is common to many. The next morning over coffee the officers agree that their units will bury the dead from all sides on the day of Christ’s birth. Later we see soldiers playing soccer together. On the following day the commanders decide that they must now go their separate ways. The commanders and troops are now extremely reluctant to shoot at one another. Word of what has happened soon spreads. The military and civil authorities are not pleased. The commanders are reprimanded, and the units are broken up and moved to other fronts of the war.
In the film, the religious authorities are not pleased, either. One of the storylines follows the Scottish priest who serves as a chaplain and stretcher-bearer. He says very little during the film. Most of his story is told in his face. Early in the film, for example, we see his face fill with pain when the young men of his parish rejoice at the outbreak of war. After the Christmas Truce we see him caring for a dying soldier in a hospital. His bishop arrives, announces that he is to be sent back to his parish in Scotland, and rebukes him for his actions during the Truce. The quiet priest responds, “The Lord Jesus Christ guided me in the most important mass of my life. I tried to be true to his trust and carry his message to all.” He listens as the bishop exhorts a group of new soldiers. The bishop tells them that they are wielding the sword of the Lord on a holy crusade. The Germans “are not like us,” he declares, “and with God’s help you must kill them all so that it won’t have to be done again.” While the bishop moves on with his liturgy, the priest removes his cross, hangs it up, and leaves the scene.
Joyeux Noel shows us what a small outbreak of peace looks like, and it longs for more. O come to us, Prince of Peace, Prince de la Paix, Friedefürst.
“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” Luke 1:78-79.
**Joyeux Noël (2005) Rated PG-13, Sony Pictures. If you’d like to read more about the Christmas Truce, see Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub. Plume Books, 2002.
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