An extraordinary footnote to that most bloody of wars -- World War I, the so-called "Great War" -- was the Christmas Eve of 1914 when Scottish, French and German soldiers spontaneously agreed to a cease-fire, and actually fraternized with each other.
"Joyeux Noel" ("Merry Christmas") (Sony Pictures Classics) is an intensely affecting drama inspired by those incredible events.
In the film's telling, the unprecedented conviviality comes about after a Danish soprano, Anna Sorensen (Diane Kruger), contrives to get a pass from the Kaiser to see her soldier husband (and Berlin Opera singing partner) Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Furmann) at the Western front, so the pair can give a recital to the homesick troops.
Sprink's ethereal singing of "Silent Night" in the German camp intermingles with the carols being played on the bagpipes by an Anglican priest, the Rev. Palmer (Gary Lewis), on the British side. So moved are the soldiers on each side by the sound of the beautiful music that, little by little, the various factions come forward and intermingle, sharing pictures of their families, drinking champagne, playing soccer and most touchingly, participating in a liturgy led by Rev. Palmer.
They bond on the most human level, and even when it's time for them to part, they agree to courier letters to loved ones behind the lines, and make plans to see each other after the war.
The story focuses primarily on French Lt. Audebert (Guillaume Canet), anxious about his wife back home who is expecting a baby; his aide-de-camp, Ponchel, a barber (Danny Boon); German Jewish Lt. Horstmayer (Daniel Bruhl); and two Scottish brothers, William and Jonathan (Robin Laing and Steven Robertson), initially thrilled at the prospect of war, who meet tragedy.
All of this eventually comes to the attention of their disdainful superiors; even Rev. Palmer is severely reprimanded by his bishop (Ian Richardson), who castigates him in a distinctly unchristian way. And there are bitter consequences for all.
Writer-director Christian Carion makes these improbable happenings utterly credible. The only false note, literally, is Kruger's and Furmann's lip-syncing (to pre-recordings of opera stars Natalie Dessay and Rolando Villazon). Particularly in the case of Kruger, the vapid Helen in the film "Troy," the sound doesn't convincingly seem to come from her. Nor do she and indeed others in the cast look quite ruffled enough for their grim surroundings. But these are minor flaws.
Overall, "Joyeux Noel" is sensitively acted by its appropriately international cast and conveys a powerful message about the senselessness of war. So, too, there is an admirable religious underpinning in Rev. Palmer's devotion to his men.
There are sweeping shots of the countryside and the musical underscoring is particularly attractive. If it's marketed well, the film should have wide appeal. Along with the cast, the multinational production team -- French, German, British, Belgian and Romanian -- and the even-handed use of three languages -- English, French and German -- seem fitting given the movie's themes of fellowship and community.
"Joyeux Noel" is a film for all seasons.
The film, partially in English and partially subtitled, contains battlefield violence with death, some profanity and crude language, and a discreet husband-wife bedroom scene. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
These movies have been evaluated for artistic merit and moral suitability by the media reviewing division of Catholic News Service. The reviews include the CNS rating, the Motion Picture Association of America rating, and a brief synopsis of the movie.
The classifications are as follows:
A-I -- general patronage;
A-II -- adults and adolescents;
A-III -- adults;
L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. L replaces the previous classification, A-IV.
O -- morally offensive.
Note: Some movies previously were designated A-IV. Older films with this classification should be regarded as classified L.