3½ stars (out of four)
"Joyeux Noel" ("Merry Christmas"), one of this year's foreign-language Oscar nominees, is based on an incident that took place on Christmas 1914 in the trenches near the German-French border. Reshaped by French writer-director Christian Carion, it becomes a poignant story, partly true, partly invented, about fraternization between enemies in wartime, in this case among soldiers of three armies--the French and British allies and Germans--whose wintry trenches are within walking distance of each other.
Carion's film portrays a sudden truce that springs up on Christmas Eve after one of the German soldiers, Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Furmann), a famous tenor in civilian life, leaves the battle lines briefly to rejoin his lover and stage partner, soprano Anna Sorensen (Diane Kruger), for a small command performance away from the Western front. Because their time together is so short, she insists on accompanying him back to the trenches; there, the two stage a concert for the German troops.
What happens then is simple, beautiful, believably spontaneous. In the midst of the concert, "Silent Night" is joined by the bagpipes of the Scottish regiments who made up the British forces there, across the battlefield, and as Sprink sings "Adeste Fidelis," he carries a little Christmas tree across the field. Soon, the three field commanders--the French Audebert (Guillaume Canet), the German-Jewish Horstmayer (Daniel Bruhl) and the Scottish Gordon (Alex Ferns)--meet and declare the truce that spreads to Christmas Day and includes a service in Latin said by Rev. Palmer, an Anglican priest turned soldier (Gary Lewis).
Not all the soldiers are religious. But they're all battle-weary and numbed by the war. Soon they're exchanging letters and identifying and burying the dead together, even enjoying a few brisk soccer games. Finally, one side even warns the other of shelling from outside.
The idyll can't last, and the soldiers of this unusual peace afterward faced possible severe punishment. That's what keeps the movie from being sentimental . The Germans are imprisoned in a railroad car, suggesting the horrors to come in another war, and the loving priest Palmer is chastised by his sanctimonious bishop (Ian Richardson, of "Marat/Sade"). Most of the men are shipped out to face greater dangers.
"Joyeux Noel" moved me. The singing (dubbed by Natalie Dessay and Rolando Villazon) is lovely; the acting is exemplary. It's the sort of film that often gets nominated for foreign-language Oscars and sometimes wins (though not this time). Yet Carion has given it exactly the qualities that often appeal most strongly to moviemakers and humanists: social breadth, warmth, humor, sympathetic characters and a passionate sense of justice.
Like Jean Renoir's masterpiece "Grand Illusion"--which also has a great Christmas Eve scene--"Joyeux Noel" is about the camaraderie that develops between warriors on opposing sides. But though it's not the great film "Grand Illusion" is, and though it may strike some as a little schmaltzy, it still has some of that earlier film's deep feeling and empathy for soldiers trapped in the jaws of war and for the joys of Christmas--for believers and non-believers alike.
Directed and written by Christian Carion; photographed by Walther Vanden Ende; edited by Andrea Sedlackova; production designed by Jean-Michel Simonet; music by Philippe Rombi; produced by Christophe Rossignon. In French, German and English, with English subtitles. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:50. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for war violence and a brief scene of sexuality/nudity).
Anna Sorensen - Diane Kruger
Nikolaus Sprink - Benno Furmann
Audebert - Guillaume Canet
Palmer - Gary Lewis
Ponchel - Danny Boon
Horstmayer - Daniel Bruhl