The Word at War

Washington City Paper | March 27, 2006
One pro-globalization axiom is that no two countries with a McDonald’s have ever gone to war. It’s probably too early in Mickey D’s intergalactic expansion to make too much of that fact, and nations with close cultural affinities have often warred in the past—most devastatingly during that splatter flick of a century that ended in 2000. A pair of new European films, Joyeux Noël and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, revisit that continent’s world wars, seeking uplift and finding it in Roman Catholic ideals of peace and resistance. Yet only one of the films is candid enough to admit that the same sect that inspired some to pacifism also repeatedly urged its faithful into battle.

A multilingual, nominally French international co-production, Joyeux Noël is based on World War I’s most heartwarming true story: the impromptu truce that briefly halted fighting on Christmas 1914. But writer-director Christian Carion’s movie, a well-realized middlebrow parable that made it to the final five in 2006’s best-foreign-film Oscar tourney, opens with a bracing bit of nastiness, in triplicate. In France, Scotland, and then Germany, three schoolboys recite jingoistic claptrap to their classmates. Cut to the news that these countries are going to war and to a group of slightly older boys heading to the recruiting office. “At last, something is happening,” says a young Scot as his parish priest, Father Palmer (Gary Lewis), regards him sadly. Yet Palmer must follow his hometown boys to France, caring for their vulnerable bodies as well as their sinful souls.

In Berlin, the thrill of potential carnage interrupts even the opera, where German tenor Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann) and his Danish co-star and lover, Anna Sörensen (Diane Krüger, Troy’s Helen), are about to duet. In Carion’s fictionalization of the Christmas truce, this handsome (if ineptly lip-syncing) couple is crucial: In order to see the now-uniformed Sprink again, Sörensen arranges a Christmas concert for German officers near the front. Then she offers to perform for the grunts in the trenches, with the hope that she can persuade her beloved to desert across Allied lines and travel with her to a neutral country. As Sprink sings “Silent Night,” a Scottish bagpiper joins in. Soon, soldiers from all three countries have clambered into no man’s land, sharing holiday food and drink and a mass said by Father Palmer in their common religious language, Latin. This is not today’s Baghdad or Kabul, where the opposing forces don’t understand each others’ music, religion, or opinion of champagne.

Of course, in 1914, most Scots and Germans hadn’t been Catholic for centuries. But some still were, and Carion takes care to establish the plausible details of his wartime idyll. (Most of the Germans are from heavily Catholic Bavaria, later the home of Sophie Scholl.) Slightly wimpy French officer Audebert (Guillaume Canet) bonds with his tougher (and Jewish) German counterpart, Horstmayer (Daniel Brühl), over a rediscovered photo of the Frenchman’s wife and the German’s memories of his Paris honeymoon. Sörensen sings “Ave Maria” and discusses Audebert’s imminent fatherhood with him. The next day, the soldiers agree to continue their truce so they can retrieve their comrades’ bodies, a collaborative effort that leads to soccer and tips on imminent shellings.

Carion balances the various stories and roles as if European peace, and not just actors’ egos, were in the balance. Indeed, the principal problem with Joyeux Noël is not its gentility but its overcareful sense of symmetry. The Scots have religion, the Germans music, and the French family—and none of the individual characters ever trumps that arrangement. The film successfully conjures war and peace, as well as its competing notions of Christian duty, but it’s vague on any but the most generic sort of humanity. The two-named cat who cadges food from both German and French troops shows more range than any of the players with speaking parts.

Naturally, when word of that bloodless interlude gets around, all three brigades are disciplined, and Palmer is sent home while his bishop stridently reminds the troops that “Christ brings a sword.” The pontiff’s harangue is not subtle, and some reviewers have rejected it as excessive. Yet the sermon’s message is historically accurate, and it serves as both a thematic and structural bookend to the chauvinistic children’s speeches that open the film. After all, the brief outbreak of peace that Joyeux Noël celebrates wouldn’t be notable if the bishop’s remarks didn’t express the dominant view in 1914—and a pretty common one today.

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