So, although most film on this list are obviously in the English language, putting it together was an opportunity to sample some of the best Christmas films from different countries as well. As I move into my third week, I chose a French film that looks at one of the most famous Christmas Day events, when soldiers fighting the frontline of World War I laid down their guns to celebrate Christmas together.
And today it’s…
14th November, Day 15
Joyeux Noel (Christian Carion, 2005)
The film opens with school children reciting poetry about the First World War – first a French child, then an English boy, then a German schoolkid. The film then moves to a small Scottish church where William (Robin Laing) bursts in to tell his brother Jonathan (Simon Robertson from Inside I’m Dancing, and Being Human) and the priest Father Palmer (Gary Lewis of Billy Elliot fame) about the declaration of war, and that they are going to Glasgow in two days to start training. In Germany, Nikolas Sprink (Benno Furrman) is a tenor about to perform with his wife Anna Sorensen (Inglorious Basterds’ Diane Kruger) when the performance is interrupted by an Officer who announces the war has begun, and that all reserves – including Sprink – will be called upon to fight. Finally, in France Lieutenant Audebert (Guillaume Canet of The Beach) looks at a photo of his pregnant wife, before an assault that results in a lot of casualties – including William, to Jonathan’s despair. This leads to the Scots, French, and Germans in three trenches within a stones throw of each other.
Anna manages to arrange for Sprink to perform on Christmas Eve for some Generals and Officers, an excuse for him to visit him and to get him off the frontline. Sprink can’t perform at first, but with the support of his wife he gets through it. Sprink can’t abide the decadent way the Generals are celebrating, and decides he has to go back to his trench to sing for his regiment. Anna insists she will join him, and although he disagrees, her pass from the Kaiser makes him relent.
Back in the trenches, the Scottish have rustled up some whiskey and bagpipes and Father Palmer start playing “I’m Dreaming Of Home”. As the music drifts over to the German trenches, Sprink starts to sing “Silent Night”, and as he reaches the end, the bagpipes start to accompany him. Sprink then goes over the top of his trench, holding a small Christmas tree and singing “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”. He is followed by his Lieutenant Horstmayer (Daniel Bruhl of Rush, Captain America: Civil War, and well loads of stuff), and Audebert and the Scots Fusiliers Lieutenant Gordon (Alex Ferns, best knows as Trevor, the abusive husband of Little Mo in EastEnders). The three lieutenants decide to have temporary truce for Christmas Eve. They all agree, and tentatively the three sides all come out of their trenches. The soldiers all find common ground, exchanging drinks, chocolate and pictures of wives. The night ends with Father Palmer saying mass for the three sets of soldiers.
The next morning, the truce is extended into a second day to allow the burial of the dead, which leads to more bonding and the famous Christmas Day football game. But how will the soldiers go back to their trenches and restart the war? And what will happen when their superiors find out?
Joyeux Noel has outstanding performances throughout. Despite his lesser profile, Alex Ferns more than holds his own alongside Canet and Bruhl as three very different leaders who all have their faults. Gary Lewis is excellent as Father Palmer, a man whose strong faith improves the lot of those around him, as does Sprink’s insistence on doing the right thing for his fellow soldiers, played brilliantly by Benno Furrman. Finally Simon Robertson’s performance as an normal man put in a terrible position is something to behold. There really are great performances across the board.
There’s very little else I have to say about the film. Conscripted men being forced to shoot other conscripted men is one of the great tragedies of The Great War. Although maybe the film oversimplifies the uncaring nature of military hierarchy, this is not a dissection of army politics, it is a tale about the men finding their humanity in the very worst of circumstances. Throw in a touch of black humour and this is a must see.
Overall, I give this:
Joyeux Noel really is a brilliant piece of work. It feels like the sort of thing that will be shown to kids in school, alongside the last episode of Blackadder. This was particularly poignant just after Remembrance Sunday, and if I had planned the list better – or knew how good this film was – I would have watched it then.
From the sublime to the ridiculous as tomorrow I’ve got the trilogy kid’s films as I take on the NATIVITY franchise!
Until next time, stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold. See you soonish.
PS Here’s my list so far
31st October, Day 1: The Nightmare Before Christmas
1st November, Day 2: Rocky IV
2nd November, Day 3: Edward Scissorhands
3rd November, Day 4: Trading Places
4th November, Day 5: Batman Returns
5th November, Day 6: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
6th November, Day 7: Gremlins
7th November, Day 8: Eyes Wide Shut
8th November, Day 9: Love Actually
9th November, Day 10: Lethal Weapon
10th November, Day 11: Die Hard / Die Hard 2
11th November, Day 12: About A Boy
12th November, Day 13: Trapped In Paradise
13th November, Day 14: Reindeer Games
14th November, Day 15: Joyeux Noel
PS Black humour doesn’t get much blacker than this: