Peace Breaks Out

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One
of the most powerful anti-war movies of recent years, Joyeux
Nol (Merry Christmas) is now showing in selected U.S.
theaters. Based on the historic Christmas truce that was observed
by lower-ranking troops in the first year of World War I, this Oscar
nominee for Best Foreign Language Film of 2005 provides not only
a moving account of the event, but a searing indictment of the forces
that brought mass destruction to Europe in 1914.

First of all,
the film is beautifully crafted. The cinematography effectively
captures the hell of war as well as unexpected moments of astonishing
beauty. In one scene the camera pans across a line of faces frozen
in fear as they are about to leap out of a trench and confront relentless
machine gun fire. We see many of those same faces later on Christmas
Eve as they listen in tears to an aria sung by a German soprano
visiting the front. 

Director-writer
Christian Carion employed a cast of Scottish, German and French
actors and wisely had them speak in their own language. Sub-titles
are inserted only where necessary. This approach alone makes the
film stand out among movies about war, a genre notorious for having
German officers speak to one another in German-accented English.
It also provides for more natural performances. (One of the reasons
the original, German language version of The
Blue Angel
is so superior to the English language remake,
which used the same actors, is that the performers were uncomfortable
working in a foreign tongue.)

And
what a pleasure to see a movie set in the early 20th
century that is not shot through a sepia filter. Audiences are not
so stupid as to believe that because old photographs from that period
look rusty the people of that time looked rusty in real life. The
colors are muted here, but it is winter in northern France, and
the horrors of modern warfare give the characters reason enough
to look pale.    

Aside from
its artistic merits, Joyeux Nol gets things right in the
realm of ideas. It opens with scenes of three schoolboys, German,
French and British, each reciting nationalistic pieties about the
foreign devils who threaten his respective homeland. It ends with
German troops on their way to the Eastern Front, humming a melody
they learned from Scottish soldiers on Christmas Eve. What happens
in between is the discovery that those doing the shooting and dying
on one side don't have any real quarrel with those doing the shooting
and dying on the other side. As Thomas Hardy put it in his magnificent
u201CThe Man He Killedu201D:

Had he and
I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!
But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.

This discovery
— that the other guy is human — is dangerous to the War Party of
every age and nation. It is why state propaganda machines work overtime
in war and why free speech is rationed more sparingly than any other
commodity. 

I should emphasize
that the film is not confined to the extraordinary night and day
of December 24–25, 1914. We are introduced to some of the characters
before the conflict begins. We see how the war changes them. We
also see how the officially unsanctioned truce changes them. One
sub-plot involves two brothers, Jonathan (Steven Robertson) and
William (Robin Laing) from Scotland, who eagerly enlist under the
delusion that combat will bring adventure to their humdrum lives.
The local priest, Palmer (a terrific Gary Lewis), knows better and
weeps silently as they leave his church.

We later find
Palmer on the battlefield, serving as a chaplain and stretcher-bearer.
His bravery, inherent decency and willingness to conduct a Christmas
mass for both Allied and German troops are contrasted with an Anglican
bishop (Ian Richardson at his most malevolent) whose sermon to British
troops calls for the killing of Germans “good or bad, young or old”
in a holy crusade. When the bishop condemns Palmer for fraternizing
with the enemy, the priest responds that the mass he celebrated
in no-man's-land is the finest service he's ever performed.

Another sub-plot
involves a German tenor, Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Furmann), who is
drafted into the Kaiser's army. His lover and operatic colleague,
Anna Sorensen (Diane Kruger), uses her influence with the crown
prince to get a pass to the front to sing for the troops — and be
closer to Sprink.

Then there
is the French lieutenant Audebert (Guillaume Canet) whose commanding
officer happens to be his father (Bernard Le Coq). Audebert's pregnant
wife is behind enemy lines, but his Christmas encounter with a German
officer (Daniel Brühl) allows him to get word about her condition.

This may be
the only war movie in which the most exciting moments involve not
combat but a cease-fire. It begins by chance. After Christmas Eve
dinner in the trenches Palmer picks up his bagpipes. Then Sprink
sings “Silent Night,” and Palmer and other pipers accompany him.
Tentatively at first and then with abandon, troops leave their posts
and begin trading with the enemy. We saw a scene like this in Ronald
Maxwell's Gods
and Generals
when a Johnny Reb and a Billy Yank meet in
mid-river to share each other's coffee and tobacco. Here it is repeated
on a much larger scale. 

Those familiar
with the workings of the free market will have no trouble recognizing
the “spontaneous order” that breaks out when soldiers from opposing
sides exchange champagne for chocolate, share photographs of their
wives and help one another bury their dead.

As I told my
wife afterward, this is a story about civilization stubbornly rearing
its head in the midst of darkness.  In "War
Collectivism in World War I
" Murray N. Rothbard showed
that the same forces that pushed for war against Germany in 1914
also promoted collectivism at home.

Joyeux Nol
is the other side of the coin. Peace and free trade go hand
in hand.

April
6, 2006

David
Rosinger [send him
mail
] writes from Roswell, GA.

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