War films produced through cooperation between the combatant countries have had a fairly solid track record over the years. There’s the epic re-telling of the Normandy Landings, 1962’s The Longest Day, a British/German/French co-production, 1970’s American/Japanese take on the attack on Pearl Harbor, Tora! Tora! Tora! and the British/Japanese prisoner of war movie Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence from 1983, all of which are superb in not only their historical accuracy but also their sensitivity.
Whereas many war films have a tendency to simplify or demonise one side or the other, co-productions between countries which were on opposing sides in the conflict have tended to humanise the people on the front lines to a far greater extent than the gung-ho excitement of more traditional, patriotic war movies.
Here we have a film made through the cooperation of five countries which were involved in the First World War – Britain, France, Germany, Belgium and Romania. All came out of that conflict with markedly different experiences, all having lost much. Now, 90 years on and with but a handful of surviving veterans (only three British soldiers who served in WWI remain alive), the passions that led to what remains the bloodiest conflict in the history of the world have cooled greatly, allowing for much more objectivity. Yet each participant nation still retains slightly different perspectives on precisely what the war meant – and still means for the descendants of those who fought.
Here, as with previous co-productions between former enemies, the focus is not so much on the conflict itself as the people who were involved with it. Instead of broad strategy or intense action scenes, it is the humanity of the individual soldiers which is the focus – and as such that most famous of First World War events, the Christmas Eve 1914 footballmatch between the Allies and Germans in No Man’s Land, between the barbed wire, machine gun posts, unexploded shells and dead bodies of the Western Front.
The historical event on which the film was based was one of the few glimmers of hope for the frontline troops in the early stages of the conflict. Rather than simply being faceless enemies and rather than merely kill or be killed, for a few short hours, hostilities informally ceased as British, French and German troops met simply as fellow men, enjoying themselves in the spirit of Christmas, joking, laughing, singing carols and sharing their limited rations. Even at the time it was almost incomprehensible – even more so as, within a few hours of the events taking place, both sides went back to the slaughter as if nothing had happened, and kept it up for another four long years.
Written and directed by Frenchman Christian Carion, and performed in English, French and German, this is a film that strives hard to avoid being in any way judgemental. With a number of superb scenes, the multiple languages sadly continue to present similar problems as they did for the real-life troops who had to try to communicate across the trenches. Yet still something rather wonderful emerges from the linguistic confusion – to the extent that Joyeux Noel has been put up for an Oscar as Best Foreign Language film despite having a number of scenes in English.
The Oscar nomination is certainly richly deserved. What could have been a cheesy, treacly and obvious anti-war polemic turns instead into a paean to shared humanity and the need to look for what unites rather than divides us. What could have been turned into an obvious commentary on the state of the modern world is instead kept subtle and focussed upon the historical events upon which it is based. Despite the difficulties of keeping up with the subtitles, this is a brilliantly understated, heart-warming movie. Ideal for Christmas, and a great addition to the genre.