Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Joyeux Noël’: A Modern Classic That Celebrates Our Common Humanity

December 24, 2020 Updated: December 24, 2020

PG-13 | 1h 56min | Drama, History, Music | 9 November 2005 (France)

Christmas is the time of year (yes, even in 2020) when hearts are warmed with good cheer and kindness, and when the air fills with that giddy happiness at hearing children caroling and at the aromas from our traditional Christmas meals.

But it can be a lonely time if you’re overseas. As someone who was in the military, I can tell you that it can be tough being away from home during the holidays—especially Christmas. Difficult as it was, I could never have imagined celebrating the venerable holiday with our enemies.

But that is just what happened on the Western Front in World War I, as detailed in the 2005 film “Joyeux Noël” (“Merry Christmas”). During one cold Christmas Eve in 1914, at scattered spots along the front line between the Allies and the Germans, soldiers on both sides called a truce and laid down their arms to celebrate together in a show of transcendental brotherly love.

soldiers toast the season
Soldiers share food and drink in “Joyeux Noël.” (Sony Pictures Classics)

Telling this tale, which included managing a massive cast of actors and background extras while attempting to tap into the magical energy of that specific place and time in history, would be a herculean effort for anyone. Incredibly, French director Christian Carion took on this monumental task; it was only his third film at that time (he also directed the notable 2001 film “The Girl From Paris”—his first feature) and pulled it off deftly.

The film is primarily told from the perspective of its five lead actors. German Lt. Horstmayer (Daniel Brühl) is eyeing his allied counterparts, Scotsman Lt. Gordon (Alex Ferns) and French Lt. Audebert (Guillaume Canet), across a swath of the front lines called “No Man’s Land.” We also have German tenor Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann, with singing by Rolando Villazón) and his beautiful Danish partner and lover, Anna Sorensen (Diane Kruger, with singing by Natalie Dessay), the pair who emerge as a major catalyst for the peace to come.

In the days leading up to Christmas, Nikolaus, a private in the German Army (and distinguished tenor), is ordered to perform for a group of German officers in an occupied area far from the front lines. There, he is reunited with Anna, a soprano who has a considerable level of acclaim in her own right.

Sprink returns to the front lines, this time with Anna, who is more than happy to join him in his efforts to soothe his comrades through song. Their hope is that they can give some measure of serenity to the war-weary troops, if only for a short period of time.

WWI soldier and beautiful lady
Tenor Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann) and the beautiful Danish soprano Anna Sorensen (Diane Kruger), in “Joyeux Noël.” (Sony Pictures Classics)

True artists who know music has no bounds, Nikolaus and Anna proceed to serenade the soldiers on both sides of the battle lines. To their surprise, their beautifully melodic Christmas songs serve as a sort of primer that ignites an overwhelming and spontaneous sense of goodwill among all of the combatants present—since the Allies and Germans alike are familiar with the age-old songs.

First, the Scottish bagpipes begin to chime in. They are soon joined by the voices of the soldiers from both sides as they begin to sing along. In a dramatic scene, Nikolaus risks his life by walking, as he sings, into No Man’s Land, a space between the enemies’ lines, ghastly now with bodies from both sides lying unburied.

A scene from “Joyeux Noël” showing No Man’s Land
A scene from “Joyeux Noël” showing No Man’s Land. (Sony Pictures Classics)

But instead of shooting his head off, the Allied and German soldiers rise up from their trenches and leave their weapons behind. The men greet each other in a moment of peace and transcendental harmony and togetherness. Since it is early in the war, food and drink are plentiful, and the men break bread and enjoy libations together.

However, while the truce is unfolding, news of it quickly travels up the chain of command to the top brass of all three countries concerned. At the command level, the truce is viewed as a threat to their objectives and is considered an illegal ceasefire. What consequences will befall the soldiers? Will Nikolaus and Anna be able to handle the repercussions or be viewed as traitors?

singing to the troops
Soprano Anna Sorensen (Diane Kruger) sings and warms the hearts of soldiers on both sides, on Christmas Eve in 1914. (Sony Pictures Classics)

A Film That Transcends Human Bounds

Under the firm guidance of Carion, this film expertly depicts the compassion of the human spirit, as well as the dark forces that can encroach on it. This is not your typical Hollywood fare, where everything is distilled down to either sappy sentimentality or gratuitous displays of violence (or both). It resists the usual war movie clichés and delves deeper into the spiritual component of humanity that we all share.

I’ve never read Stanley Wientraub’s book “Silent Night,” which chronicled the special Christmas Eve that this film covers (but is not specifically based on), but now I’m inspired to. The metaphor of the book’s title alone fits perfectly with a time and place where, at least for a little while, all of the guns stopped firing and a divine presence graced a bloody, war-torn patch of land.

I think that we can all learn something from the Christians who were present that night on both sides of the battle lines and take a more hopeful perspective of unity heading into the New Year of 2021—one of healing and goodwill. Let’s start from the obvious baseline: We are all Americans.

With incredibly powerful imagery and acting performances, and easy to understand yet profound messages, “Joyeux Noël” is a rare cinematic achievement that, frankly, should be required viewing during the Christmas season.

‘Joyeux Noël
Director: Christian Carion
Starring: Diane Kruger, Benno Fürmann, Guillaume Canet
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 9, 2005 (France)
Rated: 5 stars out of 5

Ian Kane is a filmmaker and author based out of Los Angeles. To see more, visit DreamFlightEnt.com or contact him at Twitter.com/ImIanKane