Year Released: 2006
Directed by: Christian Carion
Starring: Diane Kruger, Guillaume Canet, Benno Furmann, Danny Boon, Gary Lewis, Daniel Bruhl
(PG 13, 116 min.)
Genre: Drama, Action and Adventure
"And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night." Matthew Arnold
Leave your comfortable digs to huddle in the mud-caked trenches of World War I. It is December 1914, just four months into this bloody fight, and the entrenched Scotch, French, and German soldiers share bullets, blood, and cold, but on this Christmas Eve, they will find something else to share as well.
Based on actual events, Joyeux Noël tells the story of a Christmas truce that occurred in the southern portion of Ypres Salient in France where the dug-in troops were locked in a stalemate.
Before we see the down and dirty realities of war, however, the story is framed in the patriotic slogans and naïve expectations. It opens with three school children, one Scotch, one German, and one French, each reciting a patriotic verse extolling his country and vilifying the enemies.’ The logic is as simple as the singsong rhymes, the childlike belief as unshakeable as the times tables.
For Scot brothers Jonathan and William (Steven Robertson and Robin Laing) it is “at last, something happening” in their lives. The look on the face of their parish priest (Gary Lewis) as the two hurry on to glory tells it all, as does the wind that rushes through in the wake of their departure, blowing out the church’s candles. We cannot but wonder what else these winds of war will stuff out.
But the candles still burn brightly on stage in Berlin for celebrated singers Anna (Diane Kruger) and her favorite tenor Nikolaus (Benno Furmann); that is, until a uniformed officer interrupts the proceedings to announce the advent of war. And on their shocked faces we see not excitement but dismay.
Still closer to the action is Lieutenant Audebert (Guillaume Canet), who whiles away the slack time in his trench at the front by sketching, this time two cockroaches copulating on his ceiling. We are not sure if he looks on with revulsion or envy. His response to the call to battle is less ambiguous – he adjusts his saber and then pauses to vomit.
Subsequent visits to other trenches make us, the viewers, not exactly the cockroaches on the ceiling, but flies on the wall. We see all, from the hysterical sobbing of Scot Jonathan, inconsolable at the death of his brother, to the lugubrious Frenchman Ponchet, marveling at his salvations from a German bullet stopped by the alarm clock he regularly carries with him. (He sets it to ring daily at 10 o’clock to remind him of the daily ritual of sharing coffee with his mother. And since the trenches are all within 60 yards of each other, everyone else is privy to the ringing as well.)
Such small details help this finely crafted film insinuate itself ever so subtly in our souls. Anyone who is familiar with the entrepreneurial ways of felines, for instance, will be charmed with the farm cat who fraternizes with both sides, alternately answering to Nestor, its real French name, and Felix, when it is in the mood for some good German brot.
Perhaps the loveliest detail is the music. It begins on Christmas Eve with Father Palmer playing simple tune on his bagpipes, one about longing for home. It is followed by a simple rendition of “Come, All Yea Faithful. Then, from the German trenches there is an answer in the rich tenor voice of Nikolaus Sprink, who has left a posh German command performance to return and sing to his fellow soldiers. His Latin “Adeste Fidelis” drifts into the crisp night as his fellow Germans take little Christmas trees from their bunkers and set them above for all to see. Then Sprink first stands out in the open -- a certain invitation for a sniper’s bullet – and then boldly walks into No Man’s Land, the frozen ground littered with the freshly dead corpses of both sides, all the while singing as he has never sung before.
Before long others leave their mired trenches and are soon sharing snapshots as well as “shots.” The spirits that pour from their treasured flasks speak of man’s longing for peace and goodwill even while he is intractably drawn to his own destruction.
Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!
But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.
I shot him dead because –
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although
He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
Off-hand-like–just as I –
Was out of work–had sold his traps—
No other reason why.
Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat, if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.
“The Man He Killed” Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1928
In reality, although the soldiers of World War I generally ate better than the starving civilians – it is documented that an entire generation of European children were undersized – it still was difficult to get more than one hot meal a day, usually delivered by mobile cook wagons.
“As the war went on, both sides nearly starved, subsisting mostly on turnips. (Many WWI battlegrounds were former cabbage and turnip fields.) The Germans made bread out of sawdust when nothing else was available.”
But bread out of sawdust hardly seems fitting for a Christmas celebration. In honor of the German and French soldiers I have chosen a dish from the region they constantly sparred over -- even in this war – Alsace Lorraine. Of course, many of these ingredients would be scarce or non-existent during the war, but each soldier could remember such a delicious dinner and feast instead on its memory.
As a tribute to our hard fighting Scotsmen, begin with a toast of your finest single malt Scotch whiskey.
Alsatian Stuffed Chicken Breasts
The flavor of the ham stuffing and the cheese is similar to Quiche Lorraine, which comes from the Alsace region. Germany and France have passed this territory back and forth over the centuries, and the food and culture there is an interesting combination of two countries.
1 lb chicken breasts
1/8 lb deli ham, cut in 1/4 inch cubes
(I prefer Boar's Head Sundried Tomato and Rosemary ham)
2 shallots, minced
3 ounces sliced baby portabello mushrooms
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/3 cup shredded Gruyere or Emmenthaler cheese
1. Sauté ham, shallots and mushrooms together in oil.
2. Slit a pocket in each chicken breast.
3. Divide ham mixture evenly among breasts.
4. Bake at 375* in covered dish 25 minutes or until cooked
5. Remove cover and top chicken with shredded cheese.
6. Broil until cheese bubbles and browns, about 5 minutes.