Entrenched in the French countryside on December 24, 1914, French, Scottish, and German soldiers prepare for the enemy… all carefully spying No Man’s Land, where the dead and the dying lay side-by-side, without hope.  The Scotts arrived too late to reinforce French efforts and a full third were slaughtered in under five minutes by anxious German machine gunners…

I first saw this movie shortly after it came out on DVD. My brother and I were having Christmas with our parents in their home for the first time in nearly ten years, sans spouses. I brought Joyeux Noel along for the weekend as a happy medium entertainment offering.

My dad (God bless him), loves “shoot-’em-ups” and my brother travels extensively and enjoys learning new foreign phrases to up his intellectual cred among hipster peers at Delta. Throw in a little church (for Mom) and some oh-so-elegant Diane Kruger (ihre Haut ist lächerlich!) for me, and this movie was a huge success.

Not often does one end a non-fiction war movie with a feeling of contentment, particularly if that movie begins with two naive young brothers serving in a rectory with their beloved priest in one frame, then separated by violent death in the next.

It is easy to fix on the horrors of war and forget that in these very dark circumstances, humanity may shine brightest. Joyeux Noel highlights one of these outlying events that began with a solitary bagpipe and a few willing gamblers. The result is an impromptu midnight mass in Latin, and men from all walks of Christianity remembering whom they belonged to before anyone else.

What happens when instead of defacing the enemy, you exchange photos, chocolate rations, and share a scotch? An understanding and respect with staying power that spares the lives of them all, at least until their next assignment. The movie does what it set out to accomplish, presenting the fact that none of those young men truly wanted to be there. All were called up but the two young brothers and a French Lieutenant looking to fill his father’s shoes.

Throw in a tabby, a French barber, two opera singers, a Jewish German commanding officer, and a harmonica to round out the cast, and you’re left with a very sobering illustration of how cold, wet boots might operate a war.

The film presents the very real effects of war on families, faith, and friendships, through earnest interactions and convincing characters. The acting is superb (all but the lip-syncing) rendering the subtitles nearly useless from scene one, on. For the quieter moments in Joyeux Noel, there are no words because the pained faces and well-executed cinematography is powerful enough in and of itself.

The Verdict: Fully vested soldiers forge a definitive outcome and manage to keep it a secret from those eating stuffed goose and singing Christmas carols fireside in fortified fortresses in far away places. Definitely worth watching this holiday season as a solemn reminder of those who willingly serve in our place when they’d rather be home.

PG-13, 2005, French and German with English Subtitles (most useful when the Scotsmen are speaking!)

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