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Joyeux Noel

January 2, 2007

Christian Carion’s 2005 movie Joyeux Noel shows what happens when people involved in a war don’t play by the rules. What a wonderful thing it is when troops on the French, German and British sides climb out of their frigid, rat-infested trenches on Christmas Eve 1914 to drink, sing songs, and even play a game of football together. The problem is that no one (from the lowest to the highest in command) really knows what to do once the festivities are over and it’s time to start killing the enemy again.

There’s not much drama in the idea of people making friends and getting along, but for me, the interest hinged upon my fears of what would happen on December 26, when all the soldiers would be forced to confront each other again. That prospect kept me on edge throughout the sweet and slightly sentimental scenes of conviviality. In the end, the real strength of Carion’s movie is wondering how on earth so many people could have considered the brief armistice to be such a perversion, such a terrible thing. The armistice shows people making a mockery of the rules of war. The rules stop making any sense once human emotions become involved. The soldiers’ impulse is for love, peace and goodwill towards men. And that’s not just a symptom of the sight of Christmas trees edging their way across the German front into No Man’s Land. But somehow war wins out in the end. It’s profitable. And it seems to be the only way for certain people in power to achieve make sense of the world. So it goes on.

On a side note: I’m surprised that the Christmas Armistice hasn’t been the subject of more films. Besides Joyeux Noel, the theme seems to have cropped up in the movies very rarely – most notably, perhaps, in Richard Attenborough’s 1969 film Oh What A Lovely War. But it’s been a source for countless songs, books and even TV shows.

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