Joyeux Noël aka Merry Christmas (2005) Christmas in War Movies III

This is not only the best of the three movies on the theme Christmas in War Movies that I have reviewed but it is one of my Top 10 favourite war movies. And definitely the one, with L’armée du crime aka Army of Crime, that is closest to my heart.

Merry Christmas aka Joyeux Noël is based on a true event, the so-called “Little Peace during the Great War”. It’s a multinational co-prodcution, in three languages, English, French and German, filmed by the French writer and film director Christian Carion. One of the most European movies of all time. It portrays cultural differences of the involved parties in a truly amazing way. It is one of the most outstanding anti-war movies and achieves to make a profound pacifist and humanist statement.

Pretty much like Stalingrad, Joyeux Noël focuses on very few people. At the heart of the movie are the soldiers in the German, French and Scottish trenches. The central figures are the three lieutenants of the respective trenches, and one or two of their soldiers.

After endless days of shelling, Christmas 1914 arrives. The soldiers in the three enemy trenches are having their Christmas meals. A simple meal, accompanied by a lot of whisky, in the Scottish trench, hundreds of Christmas trees and a frugal meal in the German trench and nicely laid tables, candles, wine and a sophisticated meal in the French trenches. Towards the end of the meal, the Scots start to sing and play the bagpipes. The German’s are startled at first and finally join in. Amongst their ranks is a soldier who was a famous opera singer (Benno Fürmann) in his civilian life. He leaves the German trench with a Christmas tree and walks singing into no man’s land until his angered lieutenant follows him. Meanwhile, the Scottish lieutetnant has also left the trench and approaches them. For the sake of the evening and their men, they discuss a ceasefire. All this time the French look at this with wonder and utter puzzlement, until their lieutenant joins in as well and they all agree on the ceasefire. The evening is spent with a mass (Gary Lewis is fantastic as the priest) and the fiancée (the very beautiful Diane Kruger) of the opera singe,r who has been there for this evening, sings for them. They also share food, drinks and get to know each other.

The next day they have a hard time going back to the normal routine of shooting at each other. They first agree on letting each other bury their dead and then start playing football until the shelling starts again. The Germans start first and so all the soldiers are allowed to seek refuge in the German trench.

The commanders of the three armies hear of this and all the involved parties are severely punished. If they hadn’t been so numerous they would have been shot.

What I liked the most about this movie is how emotional it is. Carion says in an interview that he wanted to remind us of this little miracle and to really experience it. He states that he is a pacifist and a humanist, in the sense of believing in human values. The choice of the three lieutenants was extremely important in conveying this. If I ever do a post on the most likable commanding officers in war movies, those three are all going to be on it. My personal favourite is the French lieutenant Audebert, played by Guillaume Canet. The choice of such a sensitive and fragile actor was a stroke of genius. The German Daniel Brühl is very good too, and so is the Scottish actor Alex Ferns, but they do not have the versatility of Canet. Lieutenant Audebert is a very determined but just and utterly emotional commander. He throws up at the beginning of the battle but still manges to give strength to his people, to guide them. Apart from Platoon’s Sgt Elias, Audebert is the most touching soldier I have ever seen. Brühl as Horstmayer is the most complex of the three, the only one who speaks all three languages and changes considerably during the movie. Ferns as Gordon is the one that men would want as their mate.

An absolutely outstanding aspect of the movie is the way it renders the differences of the trenches that do mirror the differences of the mentalities of the parties involved. This might seem clichéd for an outsider but if you are familiar with the cultures of those countries and know something about the life in the trenches you will notice how highly accurate it is.

The British trenches had the reputation of being very shoddy and muddy, whereas the Germans transformed theirs into real homes. The French on their side had the best food and coffee. The trench system is very complicated and the narrow steep walls didn’t allow outside orientation, that’s why they had a system of signs that showed them where which enemy was. We see the sign “Rosbif land” in the French and “Froggy trench” in the Scottish trench which is very accurate and funny.

It is after all also a humorous movie, especially in the French and the Scottish parts. The Germans are shown as more sober. One of the nicest touches of the movie is the story of the trench cat. Each trench believes the ginger tom is theirs. At the end of the movie the cat is caught with a bit of cardboard around the neck. He has become a messenger between the trenches and is duly  arrested for high treason.

If someone wanted to get familiar with war movies or never has seen one,  Merry Christmas is the war movie I would recommend he or she should watch. There is everything in it: tears and laughter, despair and hope, misery and joy, combat and trench life, criticism of the high command, class differences and a love story thrown in for good measure. 5/5

I couldn’t find an English trailer and attached a scene instead.

And the original trailer.

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A Midnight Clear (1992) Christmas in War Movies II

Ardennes Forest, December 1944, just after the Battle of the Bulge. A small intelligence unit is sent to an abandoned estate in the forest to do some reconnaissance. The men all have an IQ above 150 and have been chose especially for this unit. While staying at the house they encounter a small group of German soldiers who want to surrender. They have just returned from the Eastern front, happy to have survived and war weary. They don’t see any sense in fighting anymore. During an evening of truce the two parties exchange Christmas gifts and sing their respective Christmas songs. The time before the two parties meet is the best part in the movie. It is quite spooky. The men, surrounded by the ghostly winter forest, start to doubt at some point that there really is someone, they only hear noises and voices that shout “Good night” in German.

The day after the Christmas celebration they are going to fake a skirmish in which the US soldiers will pretend to take the Germans prisoners. It doesn’t quite turn out the way they planned it.

A Midnight Clear is based on a novel by William Wharton (the same author who wrote Birdy). The most striking feature of the movie are powerful images. There is an instance where the group comes upon two frozen soldiers, a German and an American one, who seem to be dancing together. The icy cold winter forest is beautifully filmed. Another really great aspect is a flashback element where we see the young American soldiers getting ready for going to war and spending a night on the town looking for an occasion to lose their virginity.

I have read a lot of positive reviews about this movie. Funny enough, a person on amazon, who gave it high praise, compared it to Castle Keep and called it surreal. I didn’t think it was surreal, I thought it was at moments a bit forced.  This was mostly due to the character called “Mother” who annoyed me totally. Sure, he suffered of post-traumatic stress, still.

Since I have been complaining about the use of languages in Silent Night, I might add here that this is flawless in this movie. The German soldiers are played by German actors.

Another interesting element is that we see a few fine actors at the beginning of their career: Ethan Hawke, Kevin Dillon and Gary Sinise.

How would I rate it? All in all I can’t give it more than 3/5. I have a feeling, comparing my impressions with all the positive reviews, that I didn’t get this movie. Or is it too similar to Silent Night?

This is the only trailer I could find. Whoever did it found it appropriate to use Albinoni’s Adagio which we never hear in the movie. It would have been fitting though.

Silent Night (2002) Christmas in War Movies I

This review is part of a sequence of reviews of war movies that have Christmas as their main theme. There are many war movies in which a part takes place during Christmas or in which it is evoked but that are not the ones I’d like to focus on. I want to focus on those that really center on it.

The first one I’m reviewing is, as you can see, Silent Night, A  Midnight Clear, Joyeux Noël and maybe one or two older ones will follow.

The TV drama Silent Night is based on true facts. It is set on Christmas Eve 1944, just after the Battle of the Bulge. A mother and her young son are seeking refuge in the family’s hunting lodge in the middle of the Ardennes Forest. They walk through the war-torn woods, approach the front line and pass dead bodies, troops of soldiers and tanks.

They have just arrived at the lodge when two American soldiers arrive, carrying one of their wounded. The woman lets them stay reluctantly but makes them leave their weapons in front of the house. Elisabeth Vincken (Linda Hamilton) is not what you would call a patriot. She has lost her eldest son at Stalingrad, her husband is probably dead as well and the youngest, Fritz, would like to join the Hitler Youth which she wants to prevent at all costs.

While they are looking after the badly wounded soldier, a group of three German soldiers arrives at the hut and the encounter almost ends in mutual shooting. Elisabeth is a very strong woman, very determined and persuasive. After some initial discussions and negotiations they agree to leave their weapons behind, enter the house and spend the night there in peace.

I don’t think that anyone present during this Christmas dinner was likely to ever forget it. It would certainly be the most memorable Christmas of their lives. They sit around the table, share their food and stories, talk about the way in which this and the former war affected them. Still,  tensions do not subside completely. The German lieutenant has a particularly hard time to stay peaceful. He is bitter and aggressive, however, after a moment of escalation, he starts to see how absurd this all is and gives in as well. There is a final test that will show if these men have truly become friends in one evening. And if so, will they stay friends later on?

One  thing, as often, that truly bothered me were the bad accents. Americans speaking German with heavy American accents and then fake English accents. But cheer up, I have been assured that it doesn’t bother you if you don’t speak German.

The movie has a few very sentimental moments but it is overall not bad at all, no it is quite a pleasant movie that achieves to capture the spirit of Christmas. Recommended Sunday afternoon viewing with loads of snow, drama and some genuinely heartfelt moments.

I also included Silent Night in my update Children in War Movies List.

Everyman´s War (2009) is retelling The Battle of the Bulge

I don´t really know what to say about this movie. Basically I think it is a missed chance. It contains too many flaws to be really good but still has quite a few touching moments. One would like to grab the filmmaker and give him a good shaking because it would not have needed much to be satisfying.

Everyman´s War is based on the story of Thad Smith´s, the film director´s father. Sgt. Don Smith was part of the 94th Infantry Division fighting for Nennig, a small town in Germany during the Battle of the Bulge. The Battle of the Bulge was one of those notorious big battles that had to show up with an enormous cost in lives. Being one of the decisive battles, the last big Nazi offensive, it overshadows other battles like the one at Hurtgen Forest that was so skillfully depicted in When Trumpets Fade. The battle of  Bastogne Forest that we saw in Band of Brothers is also part of the Battle of the Bulge. Smith lands in Europe around Christmas 1944, just when the offensive begins and stays in Europe until the end of the war.

The tragedy of the battle is well shown in Everyman´s War. The Army command misjudging the German´s will to fight thought they would never attack during ice-cold weather, snow and temperatures below zero. But they did.

Sgt. Smith´s courageous fight, the love for his comrades and his despair about losing them is well shown. So are the battle scenes. As long as there is no music all is fine. Sadly the choice of music is bad and ostentatiously corny. And so is the background story, the home front bits  (think the end of Saving Private Ryan and dip it in sirup).

This is frustrating as the main theme, alluded to in the title, is nicely executed. This was everyman´s war. Everybody was in it. The French, the English, the Americans, but also the Germans and the German Jews. Moments where the film achieves to make us feel sorry for everyman involved are truly good.

One last word on the use of language that will only annoy people who understand German. 90% of the actors impersonating German´s are not Germans and have bad accents and an unintentionally funny way of pronouncing the German words. However this will not bother speakers of other languages. Apart from that the portrait of Germans is quite just.

Having said all this I just think it is a pity. This could have been a good film but now we are left with a 3 (out of 5) star achievement.