Joyeux Noël is a highly overlooked Christmas war film that portrays amazing true events with the weight, complexity, and powerful emotion they richly deserve.
It’s the holiday season, easily my favorite time of the year. Which means families come together, Christmas songs are played all around, people overspend on gifts, and everyone’s favorite Christmas specials and films are fired up on the TV. We all have our favorite big-name holiday classics: It’s a Wonderful Life, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Home Alone, and so on. But among my absolute favorites, and a film that I really want more people to check out, is the much more obscure war drama Joyeux Noël. Every time I bring this film up to someone, they’ve never heard of it. And yet the second I tell them what it’s about, they’re instantly interested.
Written and directed by Christian Carion, Joyeux Noël is a depiction of the incredible true events of 1914 when, in the trenches of World War I, ceasefires were held across enemy lines during Christmas. Soldiers crossed trenches to share stories, sing carols, play football, and finally treat each other as friends for the holiday. In Joyeux Noël, this story is fictionalized in the form of Scottish, French, and German forces all engaging in this same ceasefire. We see the demoralizing physical and emotional tolls the soldiers have taken that lead up to the truce, the inspirational night of the truce itself, and the increasingly complicated aftermath as the troops struggle to go back to treating their new friends as enemies.
Most of the best Christmas-themed stories do more than just take place on Christmas and have pretty holiday visuals. They also tell a story that’s strengthened by and reflects everything that Christmas is supposed to be at its core: generosity, the importance of love and peace, thankfulness, all that good stuff. But to my knowledge, there has never been a story that better shows how powerful the holiday in and of itself is than Joyeux Noël. Not just because the film is based on real events, but because of how it shows the holiday altering the characters’ perceptions and emotions in a setting where such change is so difficult to bring about. All of the soldiers in this movie obviously dislike the war they’re in, but just by the very presence of Christmas constantly hanging over them, you can tell that their disdain for the violence and bitterness is at an all-time high.
The first act of Joyeux Noël greatly shows the demoralization of having to spend such a wonderful time of year in such miserable conditions, zeroing in on a few key characters to give the best examples of this. Soldiers’ attempts at kindness and respect for each other are met with grave consequences in a war that beats down such gestures. Loved ones can’t be communicated with due to them being in enemy-occupied territories. Memorabilia is missing and can’t be recovered. And the higher-ups making decisions away from the trenches either clearly don’t understand the trauma being inflicted on their soldiers, or are too blinded by national pride to see it, making the entire situation even more demoralizing. The film also doesn’t portray any one side as the hero or villain, instead fittingly showing them all as equal men who are just doing as they’re told. Granted, that’s much easier to do in World War I than in certain other wars, but it’s still important to the message of unity.
Some may be put off by how long Joyeux Noël takes to get to the actual Christmas truce – that being 50 minutes in this 116-minute movie – but the buildup really is needed to make you appreciate the film’s centerpiece so much more. You understand and feel exactly why these people feel compelled to go through with such an unbelievable movement. The joys of the holiday are so within their reach that they need to take full advantage of them just to feel free to act like loving human beings again, instead of soldiers forced to fight people they don’t even know. Even former opera singer Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann), who’s privileged enough to be able to leave the trenches for Christmas Eve, leaves his luxurious accommodations and goes back to sing for his men.
This all builds to the initiation of the truce itself, which is one of my favorite sequences in any Christmas film or special. I really don’t want to give any specifics away, but the way it’s paced and shot from every soldier’s perspective, the different ways soldiers across trenches connect to each other through their unified love of the holiday, the sheer joy and bravery of the soldier who takes the first step out into the open, the song that’s sung and played, and the tension-filled hope that this idea will actually work… I tear up every single time I watch the scene. It’s one of the most powerful things you can see in a movie and the definition of Christmas at its most potent to me.
The imagery alone of every soldier from every warring side finally emerging from hiding, unarmed and unafraid of one another, deserves to be instantly recognizable among other holiday film iconography. You’re not seeing troops from different countries. You’re seeing people, just like they themselves are seeing each other, sharing their different backgrounds and what they have in common, bonding with each other as if they were never on the battlefield. More of the broader dehumanizing limitations of the war are finally lifted, like when soldiers are able to safely retrieve their dead and give them a proper burial, or when they negotiate with “enemy” troops to finally smuggle letters home to their loved ones. I personally could have used even more time spent on Christmas Eve specifically. It’s not quite as long a stretch of the film as you may expect, and even though there’s still a lot to be moved by in what we do get (as well as what comes afterward), it could have been milked even harder to squeeze every drop of sentiment a story like this should have. But that doesn’t change how emotional this middle portion is, and how much we feel what this means to everyone involved.
But, as you’d expect, everything becomes much more complicated once Christmas, and therefore the truce, is over. Joyeux Noël lets the next few days play out and shows in detail the lingering effects of such a peaceful movement trying to reconcile with the grim reality of the ongoing war. Without giving any details away, the soldiers try to work around what’s expected of them to hold onto what little of that good will they can, if they even can. They’re not ready to go back to how things were, which again shows the strength of the good in them and in Christmas that goes far beyond just one night or one day. The film doesn’t end on the most positive note possible, and it even has one particularly dark scene that shows the cruelty and hatred of war even in the face of continued kindness. But we are shown that happened during the Christmas truce has left a big impact on everyone and was not completely in vain. Even if the changes made aren’t as widespread as we’d hope, they still mean something.
You wouldn’t think that a war film could fit in that much Christmas imagery even if it takes place on Christmas, but Joyeux Noël surprisingly gets you in the mood for the holiday even on a purely visual level. The battlefield is covered with snow, and cinematographer Walther van den Ende really knows how to make it look and feel briskly cold. The nighttime sequences are especially pretty as every light from a lamp, candle, and especially Christmas tree clashes with the chilly, dark sky. A handful of Christmas carols also make appearances, and even the musical pieces that aren’t specifically Christmas-related (including a score by Philippe Rombi) are still arranged in a way that blends in with them. And naturally, the war environment makes each warm visual and gesture feel that much warmer, like how good a fireplace can feel when coming in from a December blizzard outside. The film doesn’t try to show off with any grandiose, sweeping shots outside of the opening credits, instead putting you right there with these people and letting the size of what’s happening speak for itself in a more intimate manner.
The only slight narrative oddity in Joyeux Noël, which really is minor, is a subplot with Sprink and his wife Anna (Diane Kruger), the latter of whom joins him in the trenches for the festivities when she’s allowed to perform as a singer at a gathering near him. These two are both really likeable on their own and have great chemistry together, but Anna’s inclusion feels like an arbitrary way to get an outsider’s perspective into a story that doesn’t really need it. This is mostly a non-issue for most of the movie, but she and Sprink then make a third-act decision that, while understandable, feels shoehorned in and a little clichéd. Especially since, after that decision, these two completely disappear from the rest of the film, never seen or mentioned again. But overall, the pros of these scenes definitely outweigh the relatively small cons.
Joyeux Noël is by no means a well-known film, but it deserves to be seen as a Christmas classic in my book. True, it’s much heavier, grayer, and more bittersweet than the seasonal staples most of us know and love, but what it represents at its core is as miraculous and inspirational as any of those other classics get. It captures the hardships of war as any war-based film should, the miraculous beauty of love as any holiday film should, and the emotionally confusing clash of these two as any film in general should. It shows how lines become blurred and how perceptions change, even if the war must bleakly go on. So, if you want something different but no less spiritual to add to your Christmas lineup, Joyeux Noël is a selection that I can’t recommend more. But however you spend it, I hope everyone has a very safe and Happy Holiday.
Joyeux Noël is now available to watch on digital and on demand.