After watching Joyeux Noël Tuesday night at our Areopagus Christmas gathering, I can recommend it highly for your own campus ministry holiday-themed movie night or other event. (I’ve been selecting the films for our monthly Areopagus movie night this year, but Naomi gets credit for this selection.)
Joyeux Noël is based on the Christmas Truce of 1914—actually a series of local ceasefires negotiated by troops all along the Western Front just five months after the start of World War I. The movie focuses on on three neighboring military units: a Scottish unit featuring two gung-ho brothers and their local priest, who works as a “stretcher-bearer; a French unit whose commander left behind a pregnant wife in now German-occupied territory; and a German unit with a Jewish commander and a private, Nikolaus Sprink, who was a famous opera singer before the war.
The opera singer’s partner/lover, Anna Sørensen (Diane Kruger), convinces the German crown prince to arrange for the pair to sing together at a party for officers. Sprink and Sørensen then sneak to the front to sing for Sprink’s unit. Their singing is joined by bagpipes from the Scottish troops and eventually Sprink, with Christmas tree in hand, walks singing into No Man’s Land. Soon the three commanders have agreed to a temporary cease-fire and the troops have poured into No Man’s Land. The soldiers share food and drinks, play cards and soccer, gather and bury bodies, and exchange addresses so they can meet again after the war—just as their real-life counterparts did. Connections between some of the characters are revealed.
The film only hints at the brutality that would follow the end of the truce. (Presumably most of the men would be dead by the end of the war four years later.) What is shown is the harsh response to the truce by military higher-ups. (The truce in the film lasted a couple days. In some areas it continued into the new year.) Commanders were re-assigned and units were moved or even split up.
The film depicts two worship services. During Christmas Eve, the Scottish priest leads a Latin mass in No Man’s Land to a huge gathering of intermingled Germans, French and Scottish, and Sørensen sings “Ave Maria.”
After the truce, a British bishop castigates the priest and orders him home. The bishop then leads a service for replacement troops, telling them that they have a duty to kill the Germans, who are not children of God.
One of the students quipped that this is the sort of thing that gives religion a bad name, but it seems to me that God-loves-my-country-best religion will always have plenty of supporters.
If you like the movie, maybe you’ll enjoy listening to the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera based on it.
Everything I know about the Christmas Truce comes from reading Jim Murphey’s children’s book Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting.