Joyeux Noël (2005)
Directed by Christian Carion Sony Pictures Classics
Starring Diane Kruger, Benno Furmann, Guillaume Canet, Gary Lewis, Daniel Bruhl
A dramatization of the World War I “Christmas Truce” of 1914, in which French, English, and German soldiers fighting in no-man’s-land called a cease-fire and laid down their arms to celebrate Christmas together.
My brother, a big history buff, turned me on to this movie when he told me about the actual Christmas truce of 1914, during World War I, where over 100,000 British and German troops held a ceasefire on Christmas and exchanged alcohol, tobacco, pictures, and food. They played football, lit Christmas trees and candles, and sang carols together. Dead were buried, Christmas services were held, and for a day, war and strife were set aside. I enjoyed this movie very much, it was touching to see men stop and forget, even for a time, what they were fighting about, and instead embrace the spirit of Christ in Christmas and fellowship together in His Spirit. Like I’ve said before on this blog, it probably wasn’t the intention of the filmmaker, but God showed me the way His Spirit could have been moving in these men, drawing them together to celebrate Jesus’ birth.
This movie is also full of “Hey, it’s that guy!” moments. You also might recognize some familiar faces in this movie: Daniel Bruhl (Horstmayer), played Zemo in Captain America: Civil War, Diane Kruger (Anna) was Abigail Chase in National Treasure, and Gary Lewis (Palmer) was Colum Mackenzie in Outlander.
Spoilers For The Joyeux Noel Below!
The movie focuses on several French, Scottish, and German soldiers during WWI who all congregate on the warfront in no-man’s land. A German opera singer, Nikolaus Sprink, and his Danish fiancee, Anna, are entertaining the German troops in the trenches on Christmas Eve, 1914. While they are there, they hear the Scottish troops across the way playing “Silent Night” on their bagpipes. Caught up in the spirit of the song, Sprink responds, singing “Stille Nacht” in German, and then cautiously approaches the “enemy” bearing a small Christmas tree in his hand. The bagpiper, a chaplain named Palmer, begins to play “O Come, All Ye Faithful”, and Nikolaus responds again, singing in Latin, “Adeste Fidelis”. The Scots applaud his singing, and slowly men from the German, Scottish, and French trenches all begin to cautiously congregate in the snowy battlefield together. The three commanding officers, Gordon, Audebert, and Horstmayer, agree to a cease fire for Christmas Eve. The men exchange chocolate, alcohol, and show each other photos of their loved ones. Father Palmer holds a Christmas Mass in Latin, a language familiar to all three nationalities, and the men retire.
The next day, Christmas Day, the three CO’s agree to extend the cease fire to bury their dead, and their men hold an impromptu football game and continue to spend time with each other. The day after Christmas, the men have gotten to know each other well enough that Horstmayer invites Gordon, Audebert, and the Scottish and French troops into the German trenches so that they can make a show of shelling their empty fortifications. The Scots and French then respond in kind.
Eventually the fraternization is discovered through letters the men had written to loved ones describing the experience, and the troops are punished by being disbanded and sent elsewhere.
So What Did God Show Me?
–I love the look on Father Palmer’s face when he begins to play Silent Night on his bagpipes as Sprink begins to sing. It’s like he’s all of a sudden reminded of the reality of Christmas, and what Christmas means, and the importance of it. How the spirit of Christmas transcends even the war they are stuck in the middle of. These men were having a pretty crap Christmas, stuck in a muddy trench filled with rats and lice, cold, hungry, tired, hurting, lonely. I’m sure they were all thinking of home, and their loved ones. When Sprink started singing, it not only reminded them that they weren’t alone in those thoughts and feelings, but helped them forget their miseries for a while and focus on something more potent and beautiful than their circumstances.
-Wow, how brave did these guys have to be to step out and do this? I mean, for Sprink to stand up and start approaching the enemy lines like that, when he could very, VERY easily have been shot dead, and probably started a skirmish as well. All three sides could have spent Christmas Eve fighting and dying. But because one man was brave enough to lay aside what he was “supposed to do” for one night, to ignore the “us vs them” mentality, to overcome his fears of what might happen and follow the prompting of the Holy Spirit, he changed things. Men who might have died instead were able to live, and not just survive, but lived more abundantly by enjoying fellowship and fun times with other men. What a great picture of what God offers us…by stepping out and choosing to follow where He leads even when it looks scary, or impossible, or even dangerous, He promises that we will not just survive, but have life…good life full of blessings.
-I love how Father Palmer took the lead in organizing a church service for all the men. Again, recognizing what Christmas is really about, taking the time to honor Christ’s birth – even the German commander Horstmayer, who was Jewish, was touched. Like Palmer says later – “Tonight, these men were drawn to that altar like it was a fire in the middle of winter. Even those who aren’t devout came to warm themselves. Maybe just to be together. Maybe to forget the war.” The battlefield, a place of blood, pain, and death, became Holy Ground where the men gathered together. And, like it says in Matthew 18:19-20, God was among them. The Mass was conducted in Latin, a language all the men were familiar with, and for one night, they were all one body, one church, one family.
Later, Palmer is confronted by his bishop on his behavior during the ceasefire. The bishop questions the priest’s faith for sharing God’s love with the Germans, whom he sees as less than human, indeed, he later preaches that the soldiers must kill all Germans, “young or old, good or bad”, using Matthew 10:34-37 (“I did not come to bring peace but a sword.”) out of context to back up his position. Palmer states, “I sincerely believe that our Lord Jesus Christ guided me in what was the most important Mass of my life. I tried to be true to His trust, and carry His message to all, whomever they may be.”
-The bishop was not the only one holding a grudge. A young Scottish soldier, Jonathan, who has lost his brother William, lets his grief turn to bitterness. He is unable to forgive the Germans who killed his brother (which is understandable) but his unforgiveness robs him of the gift of joy and companionship, and even possible healing. Later we see his unforgiveness result in tragedy when he mistakes an innocent man for a German soldier.
-Gordon comments, “Makes sense. Burying the dead on the day Christ was born.” Later, Palmer speaks final words over the dead men from both sides. Again, these men were honoring not only the dead and the sacrifice they made serving their respective countries, but recognizing Christ’s authority and reason for being born at all – His willingness to lay down His life and die for all, French, Scottish, German, etc.
-The scene when all the men return to their respective trenches for the final time made me very sad. The way each side looks back at their newly made friends, and hesitate, for just a minute. Seriously, how do you go back to killing each other, especially after they protected each other by letting them shelter in the opposing trenches? I think war must have been just a little bit more miserable once you see how good life and fellowship can be.
-I can’t imagine what the French commanding officer Audebert must have been going through, not knowing if his wife and child were alive or dead, not knowing if his child was a boy or girl, afraid every day he could die and never see them again. It was such a sweet example of decent human kindness, charity, and compassion that his “enemy”, Horstmayer, not only helps him in taking a letter to pass along to his wife, but that his men also help his aide to get behind enemy lines and back to bring Audebert news that he has a son.
This is going to be my family’s first Christmas without my mom, and it is going to be different, and I don’t doubt, difficult. I don’t pretend to compare my situation to a Christmas in the trenches, where men were alone, cold, hungry, tired, scared, away from their loved ones and every kind of comfort we take for granted. Many men and women are in that same situation right now as they serve their respective countries faithfully and without complaint.
But neither do I choose to ignore or minimize the fact that this Christmas is going to be hard. Parts of it won’t be comfortable. It will be different in lots of really crummy ways. But, some things will be the same. Jesus’s birth remains the same and cannot be changed. God’s plan for my life and the lives of my family cannot be changed. His love for us and our love for each other stays evergreen.
I try to remind myself (and sometimes it takes several reminders) that Christmas isn’t just trees and presents and carols. It’s the promise of joy that doesn’t die. Hope that springs eternal, and peace that passes all understanding. Those are the true gifts that cost more than we could ever possibly afford, yet Jesus gives them freely without asking anything in return. And they can never be lost or taken away.
I wanted to close out with a few quotes I found around the internet. This first one is from an in-person account of a Scottish soldier who was there at the ceasefire:
What are you struggling with this Christmas? What are some ways you can embrace Christ and appreciate and celebrate His birth in spite of those things? Share in the comments!