Peace Breaks Out

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