3/22/07

Joyeux Noël (2005)

Diane Kruger (Anna), Benno Fürmann (Sprink), Guillaume Canet (Lt. Audebert), Daniel Brühl (Horstmayer)

Directed by Christian Carion

Plot: Inspired by incidents that took place throughout the close trench fighting of WWI, an interlude of Christmas Eve peace unites French, German, and Scottish troops with their shared humanity. I am reminded of "Belleau Wood" by Garth Brooks.

Most times, when a filmmaker wants to highlight the horrors and inhumanity of war, they blow people up. Real good. Cold Mountain, The Pianist, and A Very Long Engagement come to mind among recent releases. However, meticulous, awe-inspiring spectacles of death skirt the border between condemnation and fascination.

Joyeux Noël, a massive undertaking stretched between five production units in as many countries, successfully plants its message in the camp of peace, never allowing the graphic awe of mass death to overshadow the bigger picture of humanity. Shadow forces such as the Church, distant government officials, and even the amorphous calls of patriotism and revenge became the villains of this peace, fronted by people who cannot understand what took place on that Christmas Eve.

Our guides are three unlikely leaders, all of whom permit their hearts to guide their actions in opposition to the dictates of warfare: the German-Jew lieutenant with a French wife, the French lieutenant with a wife and son isolated in now-German territory, and the Scottish priest who cannot help but see God's love and man's inhumanity at every turn. They are brought together by the song of a soldier -- a famous German tenor -- and the most unlikely (and frankly, least successful) element of the picture, his soprano girlfriend.

I know having Diane Kruger attached to this picture probably helped get the thing made, but I wanted more of the military leadership. Her intrusion into that world felt forced and unnecessary. The soldier characters had already demonstrated reason and heart enough, without having to drag a cliched female and her naturally pacifying, domesticating presence into the mix. I was annoyed by her more than endeared, and her poor lip-synching to opera did not help.

Canet and Brühl were both fantastic. Their rapport, blanketed with a subdued "what is going on??" feeling, lent rueful good humor and intelligence to their interactions. Every movement, every word -- all is clouded by the surreal events of war, and the even more surreal moment of peace within that war. The nod to history, that Brühl plays a Jew fighting for the Germans not twenty years before Hitler's ascension, came across as equally poignant and over-the-top. I don't think he needed to be a Jew for the movie to make its point.

What struck me as particularly strange, in light of the current style of religious warfare in the Middle East -- or at least warfare couched in religious language -- is the scene where the Scottish priest holds a Christmas Eve mass in Latin. Pre-Council of Trent, any Catholic would have understood a Latin mass, no matter his native tongue. So everyone gathered and prayed, for the most part, with a common belief in God and the divinity of Jesus Christ. Needless to say that would not happen today in Baghdad, where the lines between those opponents appear more irrevocable. Why the Scots, Frenchmen, Germans, etc. fought in WWI seems all the more arbitrary and indecipherable because of their overwhelming commonalities.

After the cease-fire, Sprink, the tenor, says "to die today is even more absurd than to die yesterday." They've shared booze, chocolate, a football match, and photos of their wives. The Germans buried their war dead with the Last Rites offered by their opponents' priest. He insists that they cannot go back to simply shooting at each other across a frozen field. What a great sentiment! Wish them all luck in surviving this crazy war! Roll credits and be happy! But no. These poor bastards, in December of 1914, unknowingly faced nearly four more years of horror. Utterly heartbreaking.

1 comment:

Ashok said...

Amazingly written ! Right to the point. I saw the movie and you can find my review, I was so overwhelmed personally by the brotherly act. Maybe I did not know about it and hence it appealed to me a lot.