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.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) A Timeless Anti-War Movie Classic

All Quiet on the Western Front, based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of the same name, is THE classic war movie. One of the best, first and certainly one of the most influential there is.

However we need to bear in mind how old this movie is and that it was one of the first talkies. It was actually even filmed in two versions. The silent-movie feel can’t be denied.

It is very much a movie in scenes. The story as such is easily told. Paul Bäumer, a young student, volunteers, together with his friends, as soon as WWI breaks out. They believe it is noble, honorable and courageous to do so. The teachers and politicians all paint a picture of glory and urge them to enlist and fight for their country. As soon a they arrive in the trenches it becomes obvious that there is nothing glorious in being shelled, ripped to shreds and end as pieces dangling from barbed wire. The older soldiers seem hardened but when the younger ones start to be killed, his first friends die, Paul forms a bond with the old-timer Kat (a great character and superb contrast to the naive Paul), whom he didn’t like at first.

As stated before the movie is told in very distinct scenes that can all be seen like mini-movies themselves.

The one that impressed me most would have to be called “The story of the boots”. One of Paul’s friends is dying and another one would very much like his brand-new, expensive boots. When the friend has died the other one gets the boots. What follows is cinematographic genius. We see the boots, only the boots, from one little scene to the next and how they keep on changing their possessor.

Another memorable scene is the one showing Paul on leave. He lies to his mother and sister about the atrocities of war. This makes his stay very difficult and he is happy to go back as he doesn’t fit in anymore. He can’t stand being with people who don’t know shit about what is going on out there.

A funny scene is when the young soldiers meet a bunch of French girls and spend the night with them. It shows quite well that they were all just humans. The same can be said of the most famous scene. Paul is in a trench with a French soldier and kills him. He spends the night with the dead man. When he finds the pictures of the Frenchman’s wife and kid, he is devastated.

All Quiet on the Western Front is on almost every war movie list. Occasionally in the Top 5, often in the Top 10, always in the Top 100. I guess I will include it in my Top 20. 5/5

It is hard to compare this movie with the outstanding novel. It is probably also one of those movies that has been remade the most. There will soon be another remake starring Daniel Radcliffe (2012). I still haven’t seen the TV production that is said to be quite alright.

What I would really wish for is a German production.

See my post on Remakes and on Daniel Radcliffe.

Regeneration aka Behind the Lines (1997) or Psychiatry, Poetry and Shell Shock during WWI

Based on British novelist Pat Barker´s incredible book Regeneration, the first book in her Regeneration trilogy, this movie has an awful lot to offer. Unfortunately like some other brilliant war movies (e.g. When Trumpets Fade) it never got its due appreciation by the public. This is a bit sad since everybody included in this film, especially the actors, did a brilliant job. Jonathan Pryce´s way of playing the eminent Dr. Rivers in such an understated manner impressed me a lot.

Set in WWI England and the French trenches Regeneration looks into so much more than  just into it´s central theme shell shock. Class and duty, courage and a sense of utter futility coming from the colossal losses of lives are some of many themes.

Another interesting aspect is that Regeneration also looks at the birth of a medical discipline namely psychiatry in its struggle to become a well-respected way to cure people. During the times depicted in the movie however its sole purpose was to restore the ill young men and make them fit to be sent back to the trenches.

A further central theme is the poetry of young poets such as Siegfrid Sassoon and  Wilfred Owen. The people we encounter at the heart of this movie are mostly intellectuals.

The story circles around the poet Sassoon (James Wilby) who is considered to be a war hero. He has written a letter of protest against this war that is still going on despite all better understanding. To avoid court-martial he is sent to the asylum to be treated for shell shock. He does have recurring nightmares but apart from that he seems unharmed.

As mentioned before we also find a thematization of the topic of class. The officers were mostly from the leading upper class. One patient however made it to a higher rank without the usually required background. One more  look from another angle at this complex mess of a war.

There are many other patients in the asylum that have been marked more deeply than Sassoon. Some stammer, some lost their speech altogether, others suffer from hallucinations, delusions or other forms of psychotic reactions. One of them, Billy Prior (Johnny Lee Miller), is a very interesting character, so is Wilfred Owen (Stuart Bunce), the young poet.

Dr. Rivers (Jonathan Pryce) who is also a leading anthropologist is a very gentle psychiatrist (We learn more about him in the novels. The sequels to Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road elaborate these aspects. Being an anthropologist myself I would have liked to see sequels of those movies. As an avid reader it is rare I am truly impressed by books but I was when reading this trilogy. Unbelievably good.). He tries to heal by listening to his patients and help them regain their memory of often unspeakable horrors. Empathy and compassion are Rivers´ trademarks. He cares deeply for his patients and it is tragic when he  ultimately realises that all he does is cure them to send them off to face a certain death.

During the movie we are also shown one other doctor´s techniques at curing mutism originating in shell shock. They are revolting to say the least.

What made this movie so remarkable  is the way it chose to show the scenes in the trenches. Even tough it is a color movie, the use  of color during the trench scenes is attenuated, creating almost black and white sequences. This is convincingly artful. The just middle between the black and white of All Quiet on the Western Front and the corny choice of color in Passchendaele.

Regeneration is one of the best war movies on WWI. It excells in showing the absurdity of war, friendship among men, the birth of a discipline, the power of poetry to convey even the most horrible adequately. Yes, it is a rich movie. Would I want to do it justice, this already long post would be at least three times  longer. Putting  my review in two words: Watch it!

Should you be interested in more background information you should read a first hand account of one the people shown in the movie.  Why not read Robert Graves´ (played by Dougray Scott) autobiography Goodbye to All That?  Graves was Sassoon´s closest friend and responsible for his escaping court-martial. Of course Paul Fussell´s book  The Great War and Modern Memory does also take a closer look at the above mentioned poets. This is dense however not less recommended reading.

Regeneration at amazon.com, amazon.co.uk ,amazon.de

Is Passchendaele (2008) the new Pearl Harbor (2001)?

“The British couldn´t do it, the French couldn´t do it. It´s  only us, the Canadian corps” (quote from the movie).

I was  tempted to write: “Once we had Pearl Harbor now we have Passchendaele” and leave it at that. But that won´t do. I´m afraid I must say, that this would have been an easy escape in terms of criticism for Passchendaele. And extremely unfair to Pearl Harbor. This coming from someone who thinks that Pearl Harbor does not even deserve the label “war movie”.

The story in a few words: As the war went on Canadians were getting more and more involved. Being only a little nation at the time, the participation of 600000 was enormous. 1 out of 10 did not come back. At Passchendaele alone 4 000 Canadians died and 12 000 were wounded. This unspeakable tragedy is meant to be shown. To illustrate this we see the exemplary story of one Sgt. who comes back after having fought at Ypern, on Vimy ridge etc. He’s a decorated war hero but shell-shocked. He has done something unspeakable and cannot forgive himself (apparently this bit is taken from Paul Gross´grandfather´s story of his participation in WWI). He is really bad off and won´t have to return. But, as some sort of love sacrifice (not going into details here I leave all the enjoyment of watching this movie and discover a piece of subtle sophisticated filmmaking to you. YES… I´m being sarcastic.), he goes back and ends up fighting at Passchendaele. This is one of the biggest and most notorious battles off WWI. Initially a success for the Canadians and their allies, in the end a failure due to the fact that a few months later Passchendaele was lost again to the Germans.

Watching Passchendaele I was feeling extremely stupid. Why did it escape my attention that this was again a hero + nurse + absurd conflict romance disguised as war movie? Unfortunately the romance part is nowhere near as good as the one from Pearl Harbor (Yes, I think Pearl Harbor is a very entertaining romance, well done). And the war parts? They are odd to say the least. We do see quite a bit of fighting. Between town ruins and in moors and muddy trenches. The odd bits reminded me of  Windtalkers (so watch out all you who liked Windtalkers). Many explosions, one unconvincing “in the trench of the enemy scene” plus, this was quite original, people keep on flying like puppets. Oh and… I almost forgot this…the way the Canadians are depicted is priceless. What a jolly crowd. Jolly, jolly, jolly. They never stop laughing not even when they are torn apart or their comrades come flying over their heads. Why? What in the name of everything does this mean? One last word: the conversations are among the worst ever heard. In the trench Sgt Dunne actually says to his lover´s young brother, explaining the war : “Forests burn cos they have to, oceans go up and down cos they have to…and I don´t think we are that different…(…) this is something we do cos we are good at it…” Forests burn cos they have to, eh? The inherent nature of the forest is to burn? Very deep. Abysmal.

You know what? Even though many Canadians appreciated this movie (probably purely because at last their heroic participation was brought to our awareness. NO. I´m not being sarcastic now.). … I think they would have deserved better. To be really blunt: I think this movie is shit.

Be it as it may, there is one good bit related to the death of the nurse´s father – no I won´t tell what it is – and I am sure: this movie has and will have its fans.

If I had watched the trailer before buying the DVD I would at least have known about the romance bit. Can´t judge a film by its cover, can we ? (Liked this one too much for my own good).

Trenches, Tanks and the odd Sub

Each individual war has generated numerous movies. And every war has its aficionados and this for very good reasons, because every war has its own topics and themes that are very specific for this special war and for this one only. Some of these topics are directly linked to historical facts (there will always only be one D-Day. Gallipoli stands for WWI and there was  no more Gettysburg since the Civil War etc.).  So if you are interested in one or the other of  these events, then, obviously,  you will be more into one or the other movie portraying that war. But there are of course themes beyond the historical details, facts, dates and battles….

The trenches, although still know in WWII, are essentially a theme of WWI. Hence the name “war of the trenches”, of course.  Submarines are linked to WWII. Jungle combat mostly took place during the Vietnam war (and to a lesser extent during WWII in the Pacific). Road blocks and suicide bombings  are typical for the Iraq war. Close range firing is a trait of the Civil War and other pre-technological wars.

I was always fascinated and horrified by the WWI trenches. To imagine that all the soldiers saw for days was just the heaven above them… The naming and characteristics of all those different trenches. Apparently English trenches were rather muddy whereas the French saw to their kitchen areas and the Germans managed to have theirs  equipped like comfortable houses (Paul Fussels book “The Great War and Modern Memory” gives some astounding accounts).

One of my very favourite movies, Merry Christmas (Joyeux Noel) is a fine example of a WWI movie located to a large extent in the trenches. Sure, this movie goes far beyond the depiction of the life in the trenches. I will write about this at a later date.

But what was especially horrifying was the way those young soldiers had to get out of the trenches and run towards extinction on the field in front of them. They ran and fell and died, row after, row after row. Nowhere was this more drastically shown as in Gallipoli.