Joyeux Noel is a powerful anti-war movie, of clashes between superpowers and the power of one who cannot be ignored: Christ’s birth, celebrated at Christmas that can stop the mayhem if men choose to do so.
The film utilizes trench warfare as a medium, depicting the stark lessons for those who never saw the trenches. For those who have lived and fought there, they need no reminder of what they have tried to forget. The film serves as a reminder of how wars continue, briefly end, only to repeated again, given time, when those world powers forget that there are human lives being expended at the front, not pins placed on a board.
While Joyeux Noel doesn’t have a happy ending, it is an uplifting reaffirmation of the spirit of man, of God and why we celebrate Christmas.
Joyeux Noël begins with schoolboys reciting nationalistic speeches praising their countries while condemning and dehumanizing their enemies.
Christmas Eve 1914, World War I trench warfare has created a hell on earth unlike any other war. Enemy troops are dug in within earshot of each other and regularly ordered to leave the relative safety of their trenches to attack the enemy. They’re ordered to stand up, run forward to attack and become targets. Most are quickly cut down by machine gun fire. Slower, more agonizing death comes by Mustard gas.
Frequent artillery attacks hit the trenches so often that walls must be continually rebuilt and reinforced with anything close at hand, including expended ordinance, pieces of uniforms, shattered wooden supports and human bones.
The film is a snapshot of a moment in time at the front lines, told through the lives of of six characters:
In Berlin Anna Sorensen’s star opera performance is interrupted by soldiers suddenly appearing onstage. A German officer announces that Germany has declared war. Anna’s fiance, noted German tenor opera star, Nikolaus Sprink opts to serve, leaving Anna. He’s sent to join the German 93rd Infantry soldiers commanded by Lieutenant Horstmayer, a thoughtful multilingual officer and a Jew.
In Scotland, brothers Jonathan and William enthusiastically volunteer. They’re followed by their reluctant Catholic parish priest Father Palmer, a gentle Scottish Anglican priest who becomes a stretcher-bearer. Lieutenant Gordon commands the Royal Scots Fusiliers.
The French are commanded by 26th Infantry Lt. Audebert, son of the general in charge of the lines. Before leading the next charge, he looks at a photograph of his pregnant wife whom he has had to leave behind in occupied France, then throws up, overcome with fear. The assault fails with the French taking many casualties. The Scot boy William is killed.
Just before Christmas in Germany, Anna is brought to a support area to sing for German officers and the Crown Prince. Sprink, recently reassigned to the rear, is allowed to accompany and perform with her. Anna wants to perform for soldiers in the front lines and uses her influence with the prince to gain permission. Sprink has nothing but bitterness and contempt for the generals comfortably celebrating at their headquarters. He’s initially against Anna’s wish, but relents, willing to return to the front where he had been stationed as a soldier to sing for his comrades.
Upon reaching the lines, both are surprised to discover that thousands of small Christmas trees have been shipped by Berlin to the front to be decorated in the trenches.
On Christmas eve few soldiers are willing or eager to do battle. The Scots begin singing traditional festive holiday songs, accompanied by bagpipes. Sprink and Sørensen arrive at the German front line. Sprink sings Silent Night, accompanied by a Scottish bagpiper in his trench.
Sprink responds to this gesture by leaving the trench holding a small Christmas tree while singing “Adeste Fideles.” The Scots and the French are surprised. Some carefully exit their trenches, following Sprink’s example. The French, German, and Scottish officers meet in a bomb cratered no-man’s-land and agree to a cease-fire for Christmas Eve.
Slowly, soldiers climb over the ramparts, eventually laying down their arms and joining their enemies in no man’s land, meeting and wishing each other “Joyeux Noël!” They exchange gifts of chocolate, champagne, and photographs of loved ones. They join in singing “Frohe Weihnachten”, and “Merry Christmas” accompanied by Scottish bagpipes.
The cease fire is extended to Christmas Day, when the two sides play a lively soccer game. They agree to maintain the truce long enough to bury their dead whose bodies have been rotting between the lines for months.
As the two sides mingle, they realize how much they have in common. They love their wives, children and country, have the same kinds of homes, schools and worship the same God.
Lieutenant Horstmayer, gives Audebert back his wallet, with a photograph of his wife inside, lost in an attack a few days before. They make a connection. Father Palmer and the Scots celebrate a brief deeply moving mass. But Jonathan remains unmoved by these events, bitterly grieving for his brother.
Distant booming artillery marks the end to their brief celebration, but not their common interests. The enemies share information, warning each other about planned artillery attacks. Soldiers gather in trenches of their enemies while the other trenches are shelled, then switch trenches when their force’s artillery counterattacks.
The truce ends and all return to their own trenches. Consequences are dire. Commands consider the truce and fraternizing tantamount to treason. Soldiers on both sides are reprimanded. But the reprimands and punishment cannot erase the soldier’s experience, nor the knowledge that whom they fight are really brothers.
The Scots are ordered by a newly arrived furious major to shoot a German soldier entering no man’s land headed toward the French lines. The soldiers fire into the sky deliberately missing in response to his order. But the soldier is shot by Jonathan. An alarm clock begins ringing and Audebert runs out to discovers that the dying soldier is his disguised aide Ponchel who tells him that German soldiers helped him achieve his wish to visit his mother, and have coffee with her. He tells Audebert that he has a young son named Henri.
Audebert is sent to Verdun as punishment. He receives a harsh reprimand from his general father. But Audebert refuses to accept it. He angrily challenges his father, claiming no remorse at his fraternization. He rants, revealing his disgust for civilians or his superiors who speak sacrifice but know nothing of the struggle in the trenches. When he calms he tells his father about his new grandson Henri. Moved, the general says that they must both try and survive this war for him.
Father Palmer is rebuked by his bishop who tells him that he’s to be sent back to his parish and his battalion will be disbanded as a mark of shame. Palmer counters, arguing about the humanity and goodwill of the truce. The bishop refuses to listen, telling Palmer that he has disappointed him. He then preaches to new recruits, telling them that Germans are inhumane and commands they kill every one of them. Aghast, Father Palmer removes his cross and leaves.
Horstmayer and his troops are confined in a train’s stock car, confronted by an irate Crown Prince. The prince yells that they’re being shipped to the Eastern Front, essentially a death sentence, and will not be allowed to see their families as they pass through Germany. The prince stomps on one soldier’s harmonica, and snarls at the Jewish Horstmayer saying that he doesn’t deserve his Iron Cross.
As the train leaves, the Prince stops as the Germans soldiers aboard hum a Scottish carol I’m Dreaming Of Home that they learned from the Scots. The film ends with the message that the hatred required by war, can never defeat the innate good spirit of man.